'What Is It Like to Be Nonconscious?' – Accepted for publication!

I am very happy to announce that my paper ‘What Is It Like to Be Nonconscious? A Defense of Julian Jaynes‘ was accepted for publication (upon the condition of minor revision) by one of my favorite journals: Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. I will finally be able to put something in the publication section for my CV! This has been a long time coming, and it’s not from lack of trying. Since starting my philosophical studies at UCF in 2006, I have submitted three different manuscripts to three different journals. All of them were rejected, with only the last one receiving serious comments from reviewers. But in all honesty, I am glad none of those papers were accepted. They were immature and lacking rigor and originality. But I learned a lot about what it takes to be published in a professional academic journal. As one reviewer said, I needed to learn how to “present  a much clearer and more compelling case for what it is that you are offering that is both useful and novel.” Well, with this current paper, I am hoping to have done exactly that. Here’s the abstract:

I respond to Ned Block’s claim that it is “ridiculous” to suppose that consciousness is a cultural construction based on language, and learnt in childhood. Block is wrong to dismiss social constructivist theories of consciousness on account of it being “ludicrous” that conscious experience is anything but a biological feature of our animal heritage, characterized by sensory experience, evolved over millions of years. By defending social constructivism in terms of both Julian Jaynes’ behaviorism and J.J. Gibson’s ecological psychology, I draw a distinction between the experience or “what-it-is-like” of nonhuman animals engaging with the environment and the “secret theater of speechless monologue” that is familiar to a linguistically competent human adult. This distinction grounds the argument that consciousness proper should be seen as learned rather than innate and shared with nonhuman animals. Upon establishing this claim, I defend the Jaynesian definition of consciousness as a social-linguistic construct learnt in childhood, structured in terms of lexical metaphors and narrative practice. Finally, I employ the Jaynesian distinction between cognition and consciousness to bridge the explanatory gap and deflate the supposed “Hard” problem of consciousness.

My two anonymous reviewers thought that I succeeded in showing Block’s rejection of social constructivism is too rash. I take this to be a novel step forward in defense of Dennett-style social-constructivism, which has been hit hard by critics. My aim was to show that Julian Jaynes was largely written off by academics with vested interests in their own terminology and assumptions about the nature of mind and consciousness. Moreover, I was really ambitious with this paper. I wanted to reset the terms of debate in philosophy of mind circles.

On my view, we have been so caught up with talking about the conceptual possibility of zombies, we never even stopped to consider the extent to which humans and other animals actually are zombies. But cognitive science is all about zombie perception, they just don’t know it. I tried to show that it is only dogma to suppose that there is nothing it is like to be a zombie (i.e. nonconscious). Hence the question: What is it like to be nonconscious? I argued that there is indeed something-it-is-like to be nonconscious: organic behavioral reactivity, flow, automaticity, habit, etc. As Jaynes says,

Consciousnes is a much smaller part of out mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of…It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around to something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.

By closely examining the assumptions of Block, I try to reframe the consciousness debate in terms of its opposite: the subconscious. Contrastive phenomenology indicates a deep difference between prereflective cognition and reflective consciousness. By distinguishing these two different levels of phenomenology, I attempt to deflate both the explanatory gap (why experience goes with behavior)  and the Hard problem (is there a function of consciousness?).

Check it out!

I should add, one of the reasons why I am excited about this publication is that now I can use a published paper as my writing sample for when I apply to PhD programs this Dec/Jan. A Master’s thesis under my belt, 4.0 gpa, good GRE, published writing sample, good letters, and good fit all give me confidence about my chances this season. My last time applying to PhD programs was disastrous because (1) my writing sample and SOP were immature (2) I only applied to three (top) schools which I didn’t really fit in at (3) I was naive about the level of competition for top philosophy programs. This time around, I have a much better idea of where I want to study, what I want to do, a much more  research oriented statement of purpose, deeper background knowledge, and stronger writing. Feeling good!



Filed under Phenomenology, Philosophy

3 responses to “'What Is It Like to Be Nonconscious?' – Accepted for publication!

  1. gregorylent

    congrats, i suppose, but it is really a shame to allow a good mind to be defined by the ridiculously narrow box of western academia. so sad.

    as to your subject, you would sooo greatly benefit by a year or two in india, maybe in an ashram, inside of a culture which has investigated consciousness for thousands of years.

    at least meet a yogi or two.

    the switch from object to subject is so thrilling, you will simply laugh ruefully at your former self.

    good luck. happy for you. do not stop here.

    enjoy, gregory lent

  2. Congrats. I don’t know many MA students with publications and certainly not in such a quality journal (warning: it probably won’t appear for ages and ages…) Good luck with the PhD applications. You should take a look at Europe (Germany or France) if possible. Phenomenology is not such a ‘fringe’ movement here. Plus it is closely to India 😉


  3. Gary Williams

    Thanks Paul. I am interested in doing research in Europe someday, but probably for a post-doc or something. Right now I think I am going to apply for my PhD only within the US, because I want to be able to easily see my family and live with my fiancé. I’m really interested in Edinburgh and Toronto though. The two-body problem in Academia is a bitch.

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