17 February 2004

Is there a struggle between the conscious and the unconscious?

Is there a struggle between the conscious and the unconscious?

This question is going to be difficult. And not just because it is not one of my front line topics in philosophy. I really felt at the beginning of my reading like an observer observing the observers observing the observed. And then I read somewhere that Freud thought that wit was the safe expression of evil. Hmm…!

I guess it all started when Descartes decided to give us the mind-body distinction. We have always been able to handle the body bit, so to speak, but then came along this idea of the mind and the mental world. And to cut a long story short Freud introduced us to the idea of the conscious, preconscious and the unconscious attributes of our mental state. The struggle is, therefore, supposed to take place between the untamed and chaotic unconscious and the ever-so-polite conscious part of the human being.

It would be safe to say that what makes this subject interesting is the idea of 'repression' of our basic instincts the prime contender of which being sexual impulse. Let us assume that 'repression' is the correct term to use, I would suggest that this is a very loaded term indeed. The first question to ask is, who is doing the repressing? Never mind the repression of what? Secondly, repression brings with it the idea of taking away of freedom and despotic control of the innocent. Who are all these players in this moral arena that is itself couched in rational language (moral) as opposed to physical language (brain)? However, with this language (moral) we're still in the realm of the mental world and yet the introduction of the unconscious et al was to bring everything up to date with the newly found determinism of the day; Freud's day.

Keeping with the moral theme we can also see the struggle as the difference between the free person and the determined person. As Spinoza argued, we can only be said to be 'free' if we learn self-consciously the influences of our baser passions over our natures. And since freedom implies moral responsibility, how can we be free if we are not aware of the motivating causes of our action? But isn't the unconscious repressed with only indirect access to it? Moreover, if we cannot have direct access to our own unconscious self, why should we believe others who claim to know all about these things? We seem to be generally believed when we say we are in pain, so why aren't we necessarily believed when we say we are passionately in love with Joan of Arc?

It is said that the unconscious leaks into our daily life through such things as parapraxes, such as slip of the tongue, wit and dreams. Freud called dreams, "the royal road to the unconscious." Another important issue is self-deception which, for me, is the more interesting issue of them all. Self deception seems to violate the principle of excluded middle or the law of contradiction;

p v –p. It seems, for example, that it cannot be the case that: Z knows that C does not love Z and Z believes that C loves Z. Couldn't we see this as a Fuzzy set problem, where x can be a member of a set S to any degree between 0 and 1? I told you it was going to be difficult.

Back to reality, the assumption is that we are more or less in control of our conscious self. But is it true that the conscious self is so well in charge of things?

Straight off the press, with hardly the digital ink dry, I read a press release from the University of Washington which seems to suggest that the conscious self might not be that well in charge of things. This is good news for learners of a second language, but not necessarily good news for the conscious self. Judith McLaughlin et al, in Nature Neuroscience, writing about learners of French, say , "…..our learner's brains could know more [about French words] than the learners themselves, but this is generally true when it comes to language." Could it be that we are repressing more than just sexual instinct? Or maybe the word 'repression' is bad translation and bad language? Or maybe what is thought to be repression is nothing more than an efficient way of controlling pain caused by certain experiences and memories in our life? No less efficient than paracetamol is with headaches as it were.

Two other issues that next Sunday's question must deal with are the little matters of genetics and evolution. Can we still talk about mental states, for example, when today we know about DNA and evolution? If, however, we go down this route one of the consequences would be that we have no choice but to put the self, or the person or the human being, call it what you will, in the rightful place within the universe. And the universe is a big place. To give you an idea of what I am thinking about and with the help of metaphor, can we say anything useful about a fish if we take it out of water?

See you Sunday, Lawrence

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