Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Rand and Empirical Responsibility 6

The conscious mind “programs” the subconscious mind. Rand's view is that the conscious mind serves as a kind of gate keeper for what gets into the unconscious mind. Again, we are faced with the question: How did she know this to be true? Where is her evidence? Is this merely a speculative conjecture? If so, why doesn't Rand make this clear?

In point of fact, Rand's assertion is almost certainly false. In any case, if it is a conjecture, it's been falsified by the "Iowa Gambling Task," an experiment that demonstrated the ability of the unconscious mind to make inferences on its own:

Participants are presented with 4 virtual decks of cards on a computer screen. They are told that each time they choose a card they will win some game money. Every so often, however, choosing a card causes them to lose some money. The goal of the game is to win as much money as possible. Every card drawn will earn the participant a reward. Occasionally, a card will also have a penalty. Thus, some decks are "bad decks", and other decks are "good decks", because some will lead to losses over the long run, and others will lead to gains. The decks differ from each other in the number of trials over which the losses are distributed.

Most healthy participants sample cards from each deck, and after about 40 or 50 selections are fairly good at sticking to the good decks.... Concurrent measurement of galvanic skin response shows that healthy participants show a "stress" reaction to hovering over the bad decks after only 10 trials, long before conscious sensation that the decks are bad.


In other words, the unconscious mind figures out which decks are bad before this awareness reaches the conscious mind. These findings are consistent with a large body of experimental research (see Timothy Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves).

“If your subconscious is programmed by chance, its output will have a corresponding character.” The phrase "programmed by chance" means something along the lines of: not sufficiently focused. Remember that according to Objectivism, the ultimate choice is to focus or not. Stated in its bald form, this seems extreme. Since any conscious person is, ipso facto, focused, this doctrine has to be restated in terms of degrees. It is the degree of focus that is important. One needs an intense enough degree of focus to be aware of one's own conceptual integrations, or else one will be prone to integrating errors. Those errors, once planted into one's subconscious, will lead to irrational emotions and other disturbing psychological phenomena (such as, par example, a fondness for "malevolent" art or music).

Did Rand provide any evidence for this view? Nope. Nor did she explain why she believed it. Then what reason can any rational person have for believing it? None whatever.

As anyone who has bothered to read some of the popular expositions about the "adaptive" unconscious knows, the subconscious (or unconscious--these words mean the same thing) doesn't work this way. The conscious not only processes knowledge, but makes decisions and organizes memory. The relevant evidence (see the above mentioned Strangers to Ourselves) strongly suggests that the conscious mind neither is nor could be in control all the time. The conscious mind, far from being a gate keeper of what goes into the unconscious, can at best merely provide critical testing of what comes out.

A “ruthlessly honest commitment to introspection” yielding a “conceptual identification of your inner states” allows one to discover the sources of one’s emotions. Same problem as before: how does Rand know this? what is her evidence?

Since it's now generally believed that the conscious mind is merely the "tip of the iceberg," Rand's advice about "ruthlessly honest" introspection seems misplaced. Since most of one's "inner states" lie below the threshold of consciousness, they cannot be introspected. It matters little how ruthless honest the individual hopes to be when the impossible is his goal. The attempt to introspect what cannot be introspected will most likely lead to little else but self-aggrandizing rationalizations.

16 comments:

Behemoth said...

"Since any conscious person is, ipso facto, focused, this doctrine has to be restated in terms of degrees."

This may be true, and the rest of the paragraph doesn't sound inconsistent with what I'd expect an Objectivist to say, but whenever Rand or Peikoff discussed focus they sure made it sound like an either/or proposition.

For example, from the Virtue of Selfishness, Psychologically, the choice “to think or not” is the choice “to focus or not.” Existentially, the choice “to focus or not” is the choice “to be conscious or not.” Metaphysically, the choice “to be conscious or not” is the choice of life or death.

This hyperbolic description doesn't leave much room for degrees of focus.

Quote from here:
http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/focus.html

caroljane said...

Plus ca change.

"Examine your conscience ruthlessly..search your soul..and root out evil thoughts and desires.."

"Introspect ruthlessly..reprogram your subconscious..micromange your consciousness..and root out irrationality'...

Perfectible man just keeps on being human.

Anonymous said...

"For example, from the Virtue of Selfishness, Psychologically, the choice “to think or not” is the choice “to focus or not.” Existentially, the choice “to focus or not” is the choice “to be conscious or not.” Metaphysically, the choice “to be conscious or not” is the choice of life or death."

What my understanding of her position is, that unless you are an objectivist you ain't thinking ergo you ain't in focus so you can't be conscious and that is the route to death.

Yet...in reality it is the non-objectivists who are out there leading the productive lives and being at the forefront of techonoligical and scientific innovation etc.
Not all of them of course but this irrational thinking hasn't harmed them. I've never heard a convincing response from an objectivist as to why this should be. When I asked The Atlas Society where their scientists were they admitted that they had none. All these could offer was one student studying physics at University.

I'll bet the team that designed my Satnav were Kantians! Maybe that explains why I keep getting lost even when it's switched on.

Actually this belief of Rands seems like a case of working backwards. Like a cop who considers some guilty and then finds the evidence to prove his guilt.
But how did she know? Good question...in scientology they point o L. Ron Hubbards intution for his 'discoveries', yet can objectivists say they same without sounding like mystics?
Perhaps it was just something she wanted to be true, it would have been nice and dovetailed into her philosophy if it were true, so she didn't need to or want to prove it empirically.

-

Steven Johnston
UK

gregnyquist said...

"This hyperbolic description doesn't leave much room for degrees of focus."

No, and there are other descriptions that are equally hyperbolic, as when Rand equated uncertainty with unconsciousness. But when pressed, Objectivists retreat to a position which amounts to "degrees of focus." They may use different terms. They may say, for example, that a person is not "fully" conscious, or not "properly" focused. But these are merely different expressions for the same idea. (Peikoff so-called DIM construct uses various degrees of "integration" to capture the same idea.)

gregnyquist said...

"Perfectible man just keeps on being human."

Very true. Perfection is the cynic's standard.

caroljane said...

Greg--Cynicism, that's it exactly. Constantly to regard your deepest instincts as enemies of your fervent beliefs, or as allies of your most mean-spirited tendencies..always battling your own essence. It's exhausting, and leaches away the joys of ordinary, average, humdrum, glorious life.

Xtra Laj said...

Greg,

Thanks for the reference to this Timothy Wilson book - it never crossed my radar before for some reason, but it is quite valuable and potentially life changing in some ways given its experimental approach to the unconscious. I knew some of the stuff in it, but reading this book is one of the best ways to revisit it in a more structured fashion.

Definitely would recommend the first chapter to anti-Objectivists of the experimental bent for the philosophical discussion of what Freud got right and wrong. You could replace Freud with Rand and get an article of a flavor similar to what Greg wrote here.

This book will definitely be on my gift list to people this year. Thanks and Merry Christmas.

Laj

Xtra Laj said...

Now I know why some of it is familiar - I had read a few articles by Daniel Gilbert who did research with him. "Stumbling on Happiness" has great advice and is a great counterweight for anyone who overemphasizes individuality and uniqueness in thinking about how best they should make decisions.

Wells said...

I'm sure it probably goes both ways, One conscious action affects one's unconscious thoughts and one's unconscious thoughts affects one's conscious action.

We know that people's prejudices seldom come from one's conscious thinking even if they are argued for eloquently. But also people do things because of conscious action that they would reflexively recoil from otherwise.

Xtra Laj said...

Wells,

I think the details are more fascinating than you make out. One of the most important point that Wilson makes is that the two faculties are relatively independent of each other, with neither being able to explicitly control the other (at least, that is the gist of what I've gotten thus far), which buttresses Greg's point about human nature being most dangerous to those who ignore it - you can consciously put yourself into situations that do not jive with the skillset that your subconscious has built for you over the years for example.

gregnyquist said...

"One of the most important point that Wilson makes is that the two faculties are relatively independent of each other."

That's very true; but even more significant is what can be drawn from this insight. Because of the relative independence of the unconscious and consciousness, what a person thinks does not necessarily play a very important role in how he acts. This is precisely why Wilson says we are strangers to ourselves, since our actions are often unconsciously motivated -- i.e., motived by desires/sentiments we are not conscious of, and therefore don't know much about. Now if Wilson is right about this, it means that how a person acts will likely reveal far more about his "character" then what he thinks. This is nearly a complete reversal of the Objectivist position, where way too much emphasis is placed on thinking, even to the point of moralizing philosophical differences.

UP65 said...

I just chanced upon this interesting blog and have bookmarked it. To get my feet wet I'd like to comment on what Wells said - said:

"We know that people's prejudices seldom come from one's conscious thinking even if they are argued for eloquently. But also people do things because of conscious action that they would reflexively recoil from otherwise."

Is it possible that conscious brain activity has no ability alone to affect behavior but can do so only through whatever emotional force its results can muster from embedded non-conscious (emotion) circuits? These circuits were fully evolved in humans to produce behavior choice long before higher level consciousness appeared.

In my view all behavior is the effect of these non-conscious circuits - each of which can be aroused by what one experiences externally and somatically, like all mammals - as well as what goes on in a conscious mind. (In this view consciousness evolved as an additional source for such signals.)

If one's reasoned conclusions can produce sufficient emotional force - based on factors such as intuition and past experience - then we follow that path, otherwise not.

It seems very improbable to me that the human brain would rewire itself in 200,000 years to evolve a completely different type of behavior control mechanism (conscious decision-making) than the elegant and proven emotion-signal driven one that all mammals have possessed for 175 million years.

I realize in this view reason becomes simply another input to the decision process and is no longer in the driver's seat. This would offend some - like AR especially - but I think it's a more reasonable conclusion that bears on some of the premises offered in this forum regarding objectivism.

Daniel Barnes said...

UP65:
>If one's reasoned conclusions can produce sufficient emotional force - based on factors such as intuition and past experience - then we follow that path, otherwise not.

This is an interesting comment UP65, it seems reason is necessary but not sufficient to explain human decisions. The Canadian writer John Ralston Saul talks about no less than 6 human qualities which he considers pretty much free-standing, and which we combine to produce our decisions. They are, in no particular order: commonsense, memory, ethics, reason, imagination, intuition. The attempt to reduce them all to, or justify them all by, reason alone seems misguided.

UP65 said...

Daniel, Agreed. Have you read the paper on the Iowa Gambling Task?

http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=iowa+gambling+task&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart

Jonah Lehrer covers it pretty well in his recent book "How We Decide" as well. It pretty clearly shows that reason is not necessary for even some rather complex human behavior decisions and even that reason is not as effective for some of those decisions. In the IGT reason comes along afterward and attempts to explain what's happening in the card decks.

To the group of sources you offer; commonsense, memory, ethics, reason, imagination, intuition - I would add a few others such as instinct, desire to emululate, habit and especially identity. Many human behavior decisions are made either because we believe that's what the kind of person we believe ourselves to be should do - and/or because we want others to know that that's the kind of person we are. Identity is an extremely strong source of these forces IMO.

If you doubt this try telling your teenage daughter what she can or can not wear to school.

Mr. A said...

Aack, not the choice to focus or not! If ever there was an unfalsifiable, catch-all decision that Rand used to bring everything under the umbrella of conscious volition, this was it. I had a long, long argument with my Objectivist friend on this one, and it was one thing I didn't believe even when I still called myself an Objectivist.

I asked Mr. Biddle for proof of this and he told me, "but in order to ask for proof, you must already be in focus". So the choice to focus can't be proven, because it's a precondition off proof! Aha!

My friend told me, when I grilled him as to how Rand figured this out anyways, that she found it out through introspection. When I told him my introspections didn't support this, he told me that Rand, as a philosopher, had all day to sit around and introspect these things, while we busy students didn't have enough time to figure these things out.

Ah, so I'll just go quit my job and introspect all week long, and then I'll be able to figure out that, as he put it, every second of every day, I'm choosing to focus or not! Gee, if it's so hard, it's almost like, I dunno, this is something that goes on BELOW OUR CONSCIOUS AWARENESS (if it happens at all).

Furthermore, I think Mr. Biddle is mistaken: just because I may already be in focus, why can't I set up some experiment where I determine whether someone else is choosing to focus or not? Surely there must be some neurolgical process that explains this.

My verdict? Complete Rand silliness. Unless she was an alien who made decisions in a different way than any of us, which would explain 1)why her descriptions of the way the mind works seems so different than us lowly, unreasonable humans and 2)her amazingly high level of intelligence, because as Peikoff suggests, no ordinary human could have written Atlas...and perhaps no human at all!

Daniel Barnes said...

Mr A
> So the choice to focus can't be proven, because it's a precondition off proof!

The more you look at Objectivism, the more stuff turns magcially into just being a given. I'm finding that in spades as I work my way through the "arguments", if you can dignify them with such a term, in The Logical Leap.

Induction? It's actually a "given" that it works. That's pretty much the alpha and omega of Harriman's argument.
Deduction? That's a "given" too.
Evidence of the senses? Unchallengeable givens, each and every one!
Physical existence?: "Given!"
Free will? "Given!"
Etc.

No wonder Objectivists don't have any arguments. It seems they don't need any.