Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Cognitive Revolution & Objectivism, Part 3

Cognitive Unconscious. Rand wanted to believe that every aspect of cognition and willing could be controlled, directly or indirectly, by the conscious mind. Thus the Objectivist contention that the unconsciousness (or "subconsciousness") "is simply a name for the content of your mind that you are not focused on at any given moment. It is simply a repository for past information or conclusions that you were once conscious of in some form, but that are now stored beneath the threshold of consciousness. There is nothing in the subconscious besides what you acquired by conscious means. The subconscious does perform automatically certain important integrations (sometimes these are correct, sometimes not) but the conscious mind is always able to know what these are (and to correct them, if necessary)." (Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 484)

Rand never denied that unconscious (or "subconscious") processes occur in human thought. What she appears to have denied is that these processes could ever originate, in whole or in part, from below the threshold of consciousness. Hence, for Rand, "subconscious" thinking is simply conscious thinking that has been automatized, or "programmed," like with a computer. Since human beings, in the Randian view, are blank slates, nothing can ever get into the "subconsciousness" that wasn't first in the individual's conscious.

This view, at the very least, is a gross exaggeration. Consider what George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have to say about the cognitive unconscious:
Conscious thought is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is the rule of thumb among cognitive scientists that unconscious thought is 95 percent of all thought—and that may be a serious underestimate. Moreover, the 95 percent below the surface of conscious awareness shapes and structures all conscious thought. If the cognitive unconscious were not there doing this shaping, there could be no conscious thinking....
The cognitive unconscious is posited in order to explain conscious experience and behavior that cannot be directly understood on its own terms.... The details of these unconscious structures and processes are arrived at through convergent evidence, gathered from various methodologies used in studying the mind. What has been concluded on the basis of such studies is that there exists a highly structured level of mental organization and processing that functions unconsciously and is inaccessible to conscious awareness. (Philosophy of the Flesh, p.13,103-104)

Or consider what the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has to say on the unconscious:
The field of social psychology has produced massive evidence for non-conscious influences in human mind and behavior.... Cognitive science and linguistics have produced their own evidence. For example, by the age of three, children make amazing usage of the rules of construction of their language, but they are not aware of this "knowledge," and neither are their parents. A good example comes from the manner in which three-year-olds form the following plurals perfectly:
dog + plural = dog z
cat + plural = cat z
bee + plural = bee z
The children add the voiced z, or the voiceless s, at the end of the right word but the selection does not depend on a conscious survey of that knowledge. The selection is unconscious. (The Feeling of What Happens, p. 297)

Experiments in cognitive science have demonstrated that unconscious processes accompany and underly every facet of thinking. Indeed, some experiments suggest that most conscious thinking may be the result of unconscious processes, so that Rand nearly got it backwards. As cognitive scientist Richard Nisbett explained:
In one of our experiments, we asked people to pick out the nylon panty hose of the best quality from a set of four pairs that were arranged in front of them from left to right. Actually, the panty hose were identical, but our subjects picked the right-most pair four times as often as the left-most pair. When we asked them why they picked that pair, they gave reasons of one sort or another, but never mentioned position. And when we asked them if position could have influenced them, they denied it and sounded annoyed, or, in some cases, seemed to think they were dealing with madmen. The evidence of a number of related experiments suggests that most of the time we don't know why we think as we do, even when we feel certain we do." (Morton Hunt, The Universe Within, p. 276-277)

And finally, in conclusion, consider the testimony of Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner:
Nearly all important thinking takes place outside of consciousness and is not available on introspection; the mental feats we think of as most impressive are trivial compared to everyday capacities; the imagination is always at work in ways that consciousness does not apprehend; consciousness can glimpse only a few vestiges of what the mind is doing; the scientist, the engineer, the mathematician, and the economist, impressive as their knowledge and techniques may be, are also unaware of how they are thinking and, even though they are experts, will not find out just by asking themselves. Evolution seems to have built us to be constrained from looking directly into the nature of our cognition, which puts cognitive science in the difficult position of trying to use mental abilities to reveal what those very abilities are built to hide." (The Way We Think, p. 33-34)

12 comments:

Jay said...

Then I guess the pressing question is why would evolution build us to be constrained from looking into the nature of cognition?

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "Then I guess the pressing question is why would evolution build us to be constrained from looking into the nature of cognition?"

Because our hunter & gatherer ancestors found no survival-reproductive advantage in looking into their cognition (they may have never tried).

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>Then I guess the pressing question is why would evolution build us to be constrained from looking into the nature of cognition?

What Greg said. Think about it in terms of investment/tradeoff. The pressing issues are from without, not within. Evolution can only "invest" so much in certain directions. No doubt we could have evolved the olfactory abilities of dogs if necessary, but the fact we did not suggests the investment would have outweighed the survival benefits for our ecological niche. Plus such a cognitive self-examination mechanism would have suffered from the design problems inherent in self-reference ( a bit like trying to run your Nortons Repair program from the disk you're trying to fix) so it would have been highly costly from an evolutionary point of view, fairly unsuccessful and delivering minimal obvious benefits even if it did succeed. Better just to roll with it, and evolve to meet the more pressing problems from without. (the fact that understanding the nature of your own cognition has minimal survival benefits might be underscored by the fact no other species on earth appears to need it to succeed).

Still, as humans we remain interested in this area, and it is reasonable to ask why. I will put forward the following Popperian conjecture.

1) In order to be interested in your own cognition, you have to have a sense of "self" to begin with. It is not clear animals have this.

2) How did humans get our sense of "self"? Possibly by the emergence of *language*, through which our own internal (or subjective) states can be objectively (or externally) communicated. We can understand to some extent the thoughts of others, and realise that they are like our own, and also different from our own. Hence we realise while we are like the tribe, we are not completely the tribe.

3) As a side effect or "spandrel" of this communication function, language also becomes an object of *self-examination* - it "objectifies" your subjective thoughts, like when sometimes writing things down clarifies what you're thinking. (Rand touches on this interesting point in her own theory of language, but did not really explore it)

4) Hence you can then begin to ask questions such as "how come I think the way I think?" and begin to see such an issue framed both by the way others think, externally expressed in language, and your own objectively expressed thoughts, which can give a record of your changing subjective states.

5) As a result it would seem that it would require the existence of language as an indispensable precondition to give an organism any foothold at all into a project like examining "the nature" of its "cognition."

Wells said...

There is also the explanation that if it was easy to change the nature of your cognition via introspection and conscious thought, it would also be easy to irreparably damage it.

Consider the general inadvisability of playing with the registry values on your windows machine, or how you used to be able to put the C: drive in the recycle bin but can't anymore, or how windows doesn't show you the contents of the 'WINDOWS' folder unless you explicitly tell it to.

john k said...

I half-remember an article in New Scientist a few years back summarising research which seemed to show that decision-making was a pre-conscious process, subject to subsequent rationalisation by the conscious mind.

If anyone can point me in the direction of that particular article, or similar layman-friendly material in the same area I'd be grateful.

gregnyquist said...

john: "If anyone can point me in the direction of that particular article, or similar layman-friendly material in the same area I'd be grateful."

Sorry, couldn't find anything at newscientist.com, and most of the other material on the web on this subject is subscriber only. But here's one ebook, in pdf form, that provides a kind of overview on the subject:

Preconsious Influences on Decision Making about Complex Questions

I hope you don't find the ebook too academic (it's still fairly readable and largely free of academic jargon, though a bit on the dry side).

john k said...

Thanks! I'll check it out.

Anonymous said...

While I'm hanging out here, I might as well take a minute or two to answer this question about the unconscious.

You say: "Rand wanted to believe that every aspect of cognition and willing could be controlled, directly or indirectly, by the conscious mind."
Ridiculous, no she did not. The most obvious counterexample is perception. It is an automatic process, yet clearly a cognitive process. Furthermore the workings of the subconscious are not controllable even if we can control what goes into the subconscious. You even point out AR's recognition of the possibility of automatic subconscious integration--which clearly implies that the sunconscious cannot be, as you say, *controlled*. I challenge you to find anything in AR's corpus suggesting this "all control" view. You won't find it, because you're making it up. Another ARCHN straw man.

You write: "Since human beings, in the Randian view, are blank slates, nothing can ever get into the "subconsciousness" that wasn't first in the individual's conscious." Well, it depends on what you mean by "nothing can ever get in." No *content* can get in, but that doesn't imply that the subconscious mind (the brain) has no definite nature, no potentials for action, prior to using that nature to know things. Obviously we are born with a brain that has many unconscious inner workings--inner workings which continue to function unconsciously through our life. But what does that imply?

You quote Lakoff and Johnson as saying that many cognitive scientists say there are unconscious thoughts. Of course you're not giving their reasons for this conclusion, just the conclusion. I imagine it's true that many or even most cognitive scientists think this. But why? It's unquestionable that there are numerous unconscious *processes* in the brain. But why call these processes *thoughts*? A thought is a conscious state if anything is a conscious state, and it is an abuse of the language to suggest otherwise.

You may want to protest that I'm bickering about definitions again, but I've just written a lengthy post justifying the idea that definitions are genuine forms of cognition, not just nametags for descriptions. A better definition is one that marks a fundamental similarity and difference. There could be no greater difference between consciousness and unconsciousness, and it is a manifest absurdity to form a concept "thought" that includes both of these fundamentally different processes. It is is an absurdity made possible only because scientists have been profoundly influenced by materialist philosophy that erases the difference between consciousness and unconsciousness. It's not because of any special discoveries science makes.

Now the evidence from Damasio is quite a different thing. Grammar does seem like something we know, and if we really do have innate knowledge of grammar, that would be quite surprising and might contradict the tabula rasa view. (It only might, because knowing how to speak, as a form of "know how," is not what philosophers are usually talking about when they say that our knowledge is acquired. They mean our "know that," our knowledge that is held in conceptual form.) In any case, the idea that grammar is innate comes not from Damasio but from Chomsky, of course. But there is much reason to doubt Chomsky's reasoning. One of the best studies I've seen showing how grammar might be learned, rather than innate, was undertaken by an Objectivist psychologist back in the '70 as part of her doctoral dissertation. More recently, discoveries about the linguistic practices of primitive South American Indians have called Chomsky's claims about a universal grammar into question. (Incidentally, the kinds of grammatical concepts these Indians lack are just what AR's theory of hierarchy would predict.)

You write: "Experiments in cognitive science have demonstrated that unconscious processes accompany and underly every facet of thinking." Well this is trivially true. Our minds are not ghosts in machines. Our consciousness, while irreducible to the body, is still interconnected with it. Conscious acts necessarily have neural correlates--or else our thoughts would not influence our actions and would be mere epiphenomena. So of course you will find some evidence *accompanying* each and every facet of thinking. And there are probably different parts of the brain associated with different types of thinking. There's nothing surprising here, but it's totally in light with the fact that thinking is conscious, and the brain processes that make them possible are not. See, once again, how it is only a philosophy of materialism--not new scientific discoveries--that leads one to make ridiculous claims such as that there are unconscious thoughts. If materialism is true, *all* thoughts are in some important sense unconscious! Nothing surprising there, either!

The Nisbett evidence points to odd patterns in people's sock choice. First, the evidence described at best gives reason to think that people are not self-conscious about their reasons for choosing. That is not the same as being unconscious. If you want to talk about a more fascinating case, consider blind sight! People are able to navigate and catch objects while reporting that they are blind! Maybe it's a kind of radical un-self-consciousness that is still accompanied by consciousness, but more likely they're not visually conscious at all. Their perceptual systems are operating without intervention of their conscious mind. This is pretty strange, but only shows that it may be possible to be affected by stimuli and react to it in a primitive way without being aware of it. That doesn't mean their is unconscious thought. It only means that some interesting things can happen while one is unconscious (in a certain respect). After considering blind sight, sock choice is not a big deal. People asked to make basically arbitrary choices (why do they need panty hose anyway) are obviously going to act for unknowing or even arbitrary reasons. What *would* a fully conscious attept to pick something at random even look or feel like?!?

Anon76

gregnyquist said...

Anon76: "No *content* can get in, but that doesn't imply that the subconscious mind (the brain) has no definite nature."

I'm not arguing that Rand denied that the brain has a specific nature, but that she denied that the mind can think unconsciously, that it can reach conclusions unconsciously, and that it can build up an "intuitive database" unconsciously.

Anon76: "See, once again, how it is only a philosophy of materialism--not new scientific discoveries--that leads one to make ridiculous claims such as that there are unconscious thoughts."

Nonsense. There is plenty evidence, particularly in the cognitive research on intuition, that some thinking takes place unconsciously. The Damasio Iowa gambling experiments, for instance.

Anon76: "The Nisbett evidence points to odd patterns in people's sock choice."

Again, Anon76 is not getting the point. What the Nisbett evidence shows is that there is a disconnect between people's unconsious conclusions and how they rationalize them consciously. Among other things, it helps explains Pareto's theories of non-logical conduct and derivations.

Nochte Elphi said...

Greg,

I am surprised to see no mention here of Francisco Varela or Humberto Maturana. I am under the impression that Varela's "The Embodied Mind" and Varela and Maturana's "Autopoiesis and Cognition" have been the 'founders' of the embodied cognition method which Lakoff and Johnson are strong proponents of. However, I am still relatively new to the study and it may be that their ideas are outdated or have been shown to be faulty in places.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Charles

Thanks for the reference, looks intriguing, as does your blog.

regards
Daniel

Nochte Elphi said...

I appreciate that.