Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Why we need "the unconscious".

What motivates our theoretical belief in “the unconscious” to begin with? Quite simply, the incoherence of (ordinary) conscious beliefs. It’s because ordinary conscious beliefs are often contradictory (“I know that my girlfriend isn’t like that, and yet I think she is like that.” – a variant of Moore’s paradox) that we need the category of “the unconscious” to begin with. “The unconscious” is needed to synthesize or perhaps rather isolate a contradiction.

“She did that, because she unconsciously thought that…” is a form of explanation that is meant to save the coherence of the actor’s ordinary web of beliefs – the explanation isolates a (seeming) contradiction.


Jon said...

I think the notion of unconscious processes (regardless of whether or not we call it "The" unconscious, i.e., consider it to be a 'thing') explains the type of thing you described (explanation for cognitive conflict), and explains other things as well. For instance, when I grab my coffee cup from the table and bring it to my lips, I consciously choose the goal (sip coffee) and then all types of unconscious processes allow me to bring the cup to my lips without my making conscious decisions (e.g,., about how lift my arm in the right way so that the coffee doesn't spill). Should these types of processes be included in the idea of the "The unconscious". It definitely involves complex brain computations that aren't accessible to my consciousness.

Presskorn said...

Well, for better or for worse Freud has infected our use of the word 'unconscious' - and that's the use I aiming at: The reason that the Freudian notion of "unconscious thought" - a prima absurd notion - has become so appealing to us (so everyday, if you like) is that allows an easy explanation of cognitive conflict. That it can explain cognitive conflict is, I contend, ESSENTIAL to the Freudian (or everyday!) notion of the unconscious.

Your coffee-example (and other numerous examples) of "unconscious processes" does however not involve cognitive conflict - and to that extend I am not talking about that. An Leibnizian notion of "the unconscious" would include stuff like that, but not a Freudian one.

I also wonder if the admittedly non-conscious feature of bodily movements or brain computations at all is an INTERESTING property of my body-movements or processes in my brain.

After all, moving my hand and a coffee mug is knowing-how (not knowing-that) and so it is trivial that it could be non-conscious (in the sense of not demanding my attention).

And after all, a brain is, by definition, a material object, and so it cannot, by defition, be conscious. So it is a trivial fact that such processes are unconscious .

This contrast the use of the word "unconscious" in cases of cognitive conflict - here "unconscious" is anything but a trivial property; it is the essential and explanatorially relevant property.