The general picture of unconscious thinking that emerges from Claxton's book is devastating to some of Rand's most critical epistemological and psychological pretensions. Orthodox Objectivism insists that the unconscious (or "subconscious") cannot originate any thoughts or motives on its own. "There is nothing in the subconscious besides what you acquired by conscious means." This view, in light of evidence provided by Claxton, is wildly implausible.
In Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, Claxton distinguishes between two main modes of thought: what he calls "d-mode" (i.e., deliberation mode) and "unconscious intelligence." Claxton's d-mode is conscious, deliberate, purposeful thinking—in other words, the sort of rational thinking favored by Rand. Unconscious intelligence, on the other hand, goes very much against the grain of Rand's cognitive ideals. It lacks many, if not all, the characteristics of d-mode. It is much closer to Michael Oakeshott's practical knowledge, discussed in an earlier post.
The greater part of the useful understanding we acquire throughout life is not explicit knowledge, but implicit know-how [writes Claxton]. Our fundamental priority is not to be able to talk about what we are doing, but to do it—competently, effortlessly, and largely unconsciously and unreflectingly. And the corresponding need for the kind of learning that delivers know-how—which I shall call learning by osmosis—is not one that we outgrow. The brain-mind's ability to detect subtle regularities in experience, and to use them as a guide to the development and deployment of effective action, is our biological birthright.... Yet we ignore or disparage ... [unconscious intelligence] at our peril, for it turns out that there are things we can learn through this gradual, tacit process which d-mode cannot master; and also that d-mode, if used over-enthusiastically, can actively interfere with this way of knowing.
Rand, in her philosophy, over-emphasized the importance of d-mode and badly misrepresented unconscious thinking. She insisted that man "must discover how to use his rational faculty, how to validate his conclusions, how to distinguish truth from falsehood, how to set the criteria of what he may accept as knowledge. Two questions are involved in his every conclusion, conviction, decision, choice or claim: What do I know?—and: How do I know it?" [IOTE, 78-79] All of this makes sense, if it makes sense at all, under d-mode. But it would not work with unconscious modes of thinking. Such modes of thinking are, as Claxton puts it, "those that lack any or all of the characteristics of d-mode... They do not rush into conceptualization, but are content to explore more fully the situation before deciding what to make of it. They like to stay close to the particular. They are tolerant of information that is faint, fleeting, ephemeral, marginal or ambiguous... They see ignorance and confusion as the ground from which understanding may spring.... They are happy to relinquish the sense of control over directions that the mind spontaneously takes." Compare this with what Rand says about the "methods" of knowledge: "The methods which [man] has to employ require the most rigorous mathematical precision, the most rigorous compliance with objective rules and facts—if the end product is to be knowledge." Rand also emphasized the importance of being in a state of constant focus. "Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness," she insisted. "When man unfocuses his mind, he may be said to be conscious in a subhuman sense of the word, since he experiences sensations and perceptions. But in the sense of the word applicable to man—in the sense of a consciousness which is aware of reality and able to deal with it, a consciousness able to direct the actions and provide for the survival of a human being—an unfocused mind is not conscious." [VOS, 20]
Rand detested intuitive ways of knowing, equating them with "mysticism," which she defined as "the claim to some non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable, non-identifable means of knowledge, such as 'instinct,' 'intuition,' 'revelation,' or any form of 'just knowing.'" [PWNI, 75] Now while intuition (unconscious thinking) is not non-sensory, (nor is it a form of revelation), it is non-rational and non-definable and, in the anti-foundationalist sense of the term, non-identifiable as well (because it is non-verbal). Rand's dislike of any cognitive conclusions that did not pass through the conscious mind is further emphasized in Peikoff's insistence that the unconscious "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." Peikoff's statement, made in Rand's presence during his lectures on Objectivism, is tantamount to a denial of unconscious intelligence.
"If we see d-mode as the only form of intelligence," warns Claxton, "we must suppose, when it fails, that we are not 'bright' enough, or did not think 'hard' enough, [or 'focus' hard enough, as Objectivist might declare,] or have not got enough 'data.' The lesson we learn from such failures is that we must develop better models, collect more data, and ponder more carefully. What we do not learn is that we may have been thinking in the wrong way. "
Drawing on extensive experiments in human cognition, Claxton suggests that we should take steps to rehabilitate unconscious intelligence, which involves, not denigrating d-mode intelligence, but supplementing it with "sources of knowledge that are less articulate, less conscious and less predictable... The crucial step in this recovery is not the acquisition of a new psychological technology, but a revised understanding of the human mind, and a willingness to move into, and to enjoy, the life of the mind as it is lived in the shadowlands rather than under the bright lights of consciousness.... The key to [unconscious intelligence] is not an overlay of technique but radical reconceptualization. When the mind slows and relaxes, other ways of knowing automatically appear."
Claxton's view is nearly the opposite of Rand's. Where Rand emphasizes focus and precision, Claxton argues (and supports with scientific evidence) the need for mental relaxation and tolerance for " information that is faint, fleeting, ephemeral, marginal or ambiguous." And unlike Rand, who denigrates unconscious forms of knowing, Claxton does not denigrate d-mode. He only points out that it has both strengths and weaknesses, and that if the individual wants to make full use of his intellectual capacities, he must draw on intuitive forms of knowing as well. "D-mode works well when tackling problems which can be treated as an assemblage of nameable parts," points out Claxton. "But when the mind turns its attention to situations that are ... too intricate to be decomposed in this way without serious misrepresentation, the limitations of d-mode's linguistic, analytical approach are quickly reached."
There is no book that does a more convincing job of going to the very heart of what's wrong with Rand's view of cognition. Rand's contention that "Reason is man's only means of grasping reality and acquiring knowledge" is a libel against the mind. Claxton, making use of some of the most fascinating experiments in cognitive sciences, shows us why intuition is necessary compliment to d-mode reasoning.