Self-promotion: What Is It Like To Be Unconscious?

Since I’ve been shamelessly posting my latest paper around the internet trying to gather critical commentary, I figured I would make a solicitation on my blog as well. I am really excited about this article. I definitely think it’s my tightest and most analytic paper written to date, but it also encompasses a deeply Heideggerian perspective coupled with Gibsonian ecological theory and Clarksian cognitive scaffolding. The central idea is that Julian Jaynes was the most radically Heideggerian thinker of the 20th century, arguing, with both philosophical and empirical evidence, that Cartesian forms of self-consciousness are not necessary in the everyday coping of pragmatic habitual behavior. As Heidegger says, the constitution of human Dasein’s basic perceptual disclosure always remains “outside”. In other words, the internal representational space of Cartesian theories of mind  is a philosopher’s fiction.

Or is it?Despite his withering critique of Cartesian philosophy of mind, Heidegger admits that there is a sense in which the Cartesian mind-space is real, but not in terms of  being a mental container for the representational bits of sensory qualia as Cartesian psychology would have it. In my favorite section of Being and Time (Care and Selfhood), Heidegger calls Cartesian-Kantian mindedness  the I-structure or Ichheit. While Heidegger admits the phenomenological reality of this executive operation, the difference with Descartes and Kant lies in that Heidegger does not assume the I is constantly present-at-hand and ontologically foundational for perceptual disclosure. Instead, selves and their operations are rare, fleeting, but real. The human Dasein is always oscillating between the unconscious coping habits of the They-self and the self-identical authenticity of Ichheit i.e Cartesian mind-space and Kantian I-hood. By removing I-hood from the ontological foundation however, we can account for organic behavior without recourse to representational internalism, which assumes the constantly present Mind’s Eye (a mere cultural construction) to view the “tunnel” of reality constructed by the sub-personal perceptual routines. Instead, “the Dasein that knows remains outside as Dasein“.

Anyway, here is the introductory paragraph for my paper. Enjoy, and please feel free to leave critical commentary.

In this paper I want to respond to Ned Block’s claim that it is simply “ridiculous” to suppose that consciousness is a cultural construction. In so doing, I will argue that a distinction can be made between what-it’s-like to be a nonhuman animal and the phenomenality of average, adult humans. In accordance with this distinction, I will argue that Block is wrong to dismiss social constructivist theories of consciousness on account of it being simply “ludicrous” that first-person experience is anything but a basic biological feature of our animal heritage, characterized by sensory experience, having slowly evolved over millions of years. By defending social constructivism, I will claim that a distinction can be made between the basic biological experience of nonhuman animals and the consciousness that constitutes the experience of an average human adult. In other words, there is more to phenomenal consciousness than brute, biological perception of the world. Following Julian Jaynes, I will argue that to be in a conscious mental state means more than just to experience the way things look, smell, or feel. To experience the world consciously means to experience it (and yourself) in terms of certain conceptual filters. It will be the task of this paper to work out what these filters amount to and to argue that it is only in light of these filters that human experience should be considered “conscious”. In so doing, I will address the plausibility of unconscious human cultures and conclude, contra Block, that such “cultural zombies” are entirely plausible based on known psychological facts. Essentially, such zombies would have a what-it’s-like while nonetheless lacking consciousness proper. Demonstrating this will amount to answering the question, “What is it like to be unconscious?” By doing so, I will give a Jaynesian answer to the question, “What is it like to be conscious?”

Click here for paper: What Is It Like To Be Unconscious?



Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

2 responses to “Self-promotion: What Is It Like To Be Unconscious?

  1. Coming from a Heideggerian background with a good deal of Hegel thrown in, I’m occasionally mystified by the confusion surrounding current terminology. Hegel’s distinctions between sense-certainty, perception, consciousness and self-consciousness seemed to make clear a lot of issues that have been remuddified in the interim. When I read Jaynes I’m never sure if he’s denying that human beings prior to the 2nd millenium b.c had consciousness or had self-consciousness in the hegelian sense, and his descriptions of what they were lacking seems to flit between both. Looking at mind from a systems perspective it would seem to me that the recursion and reciprocity necessary for self-consciousness would inherently require language, while consciousness itself would not.

    I also tend to distinguish, personally, between phenomenenological ‘understanding how things are’ vs scientific ‘explaining how things came to be that way’. Science is enamoured with origin and immediately begins a reduction either by taking-apart systems into components or chronologically reducing beings to origins. Neither helps to understand a working system however, once you make the slightest reduction the system is no longer present. The reality of emergence in even simple systems makes any reduction impossible. You can discuss ‘aspects’ of a system, but that is only with the caveat that those ‘aspects’ are only found in a functioning system in its appropriate environment or world.

    Perhaps you could clarify for me some of the answers as to what you’re trying to get at in your paper and I might have another go at it.


  2. Gary Williams

    Andrew, let me try and break Jaynes’ terminology down for you.

    First, Jaynes makes a distinction between consciousness and perceptual cognition. Consciousness is not necessary for perception. For Jaynes, consciousness is more closely related to the ability to narratize events in terms of a personal self or “analog I” who can kind of step back and reflect on the world introspectively. If you want to know what the content of consciousness is, go up to a stranger and ask them what they were just thinking of; their answer is referring to conscious content.

    So for Jaynes, humans prior to 2nd and 3rd millennium were capable of many advanced cognitive skills, but they had no “internal consciousness” in the sense that their mental lives were essentially on autopilot and without a narrative structure filtered in terms of a “self” and an autobiographical “me”.

    I relate Jaynes to Heidegger because like Heidegger, Jaynes offers first of all a “deflationary” theory of mind which reduces complex cognition to unconscious habitual behavior driven by social scripts. However, like Heidegger, Jaynes goes beyond mere absorbed coping and offers a cognitive scaffold of “authentic selfhood” which is built on top of the more primordial inauthentic existence of bodily habits. In this sense, I think Jaynes offers a fairly comprehensive theory of mind that is compatible with Heidegger’s own theory.

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