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Fr. 660

August 17, 2015

Thus far, we have elaborated a view on which selfhood helps to make sense of contemporary (political) discourse via the distinction and subsequent reconnection of subparts of selfhood: person, agent, self, subject, individual, identity. If to each of these we have attached a specific meaning, it is precisely because none of them alone exhausts that which selfhood contains, as determined within the limits of epistemic nominalism, i.e. what we can know from empirical or linguistic inquiry into the “object”. These distinctions become all the more important when the time comes to affront the two major classes of objections that this inquiry faces.

On one hand, the empirical sciences may consider “self” an illusion, as have certain philosophers before them (such as Nietzsche). On the other, theorists of all stripes may find the emphasis on “self” or “identity” objectionable in that it invites a certain strand of identity politics. Even if we were successful in establishing the plausibility of our account of selfhood, these concerns could suffice to rule the inquiry out from its very beginning. How might we address them without dismissing them out of hand? Can we do them justice without diminishing their impact? In short, can we make sense of them within the framework laid out elsewhere? There is no other means of finding out than to try.

Beginning with the first, consider a recent article, written by Peter Carruthers for Oxford University Press’s blog. Entitled “Who’s in charge anyway?”, the article takes aim at the double illusion of a conscious self exercising self-control. More specifically, Carruthers contends that, while many now accept the importance of unconscious mental processes on their lives, they remain more likely to identity with the conscious mental processes. This owes perhaps to the difficulty in owning or taking on that of which, by definition, they are not aware and which, in the worst of cases, conceals predispositions repulsive to their conscious lives.

For the empirically inclined, identity is faced with the task of incorporating not simply its conscious and avowed aspects (nationality, ethnicity, religion, class, language, upbringing, etc.) but, just as importantly, unconscious and hidden aspects – aspects that, while not projected to self and others, factor into that projection (which has elsewhere been termed “identity”). Yet these aspects require outside assistance before they can be properly integrated. Hence, they remain in most cases a spot to which conscious self and self-articulation are blind.

This illusion goes beyond identification and extends to self-control. Carruthers states his case as follows:

We are also apt to think that it is our conscious minds that are in control, much of the time; or at any rate, that our conscious minds are capable of taking control. When we pause to reflect, and act on our reflections, it is our conscious thoughts — our conscious beliefs, goals, and decisions — that get to control what we do. Or so we think. But this sense of self-control is an illusion. In reality our conscious minds are controlled and manipulated by unconscious processes.

Carruthers begins his case by calling attention to the way in which unconscious mental processes influence the conscious, intentional states of which we are aware in the mental economy. More simply, recent empirical findings suggest that conscious processes such as beliefs, goals and decisions are anything but conscious. In reality, these processes exist in what we might term a mental echochamber:

Rather, these states pull the strings in the background, selecting and manipulating the sensory-based contents that do figure in consciousness. Our conscious reflections are exclusively composed of sensory-like events such as visual images, episodic memories, inner speech, and so on. But because we swiftly and unconsciously interpret these events as manifestations of corresponding beliefs, goals, or decisions, we have the impression that we are consciously aware of such thoughts […] But your access to the underlying decision is just as indirect and interpretive as is your access to someone else’s decision when they say such a thing out loud. In our own case, however, we are under the illusion that the decision is a conscious one.

Insofar as we lack access to the brain-based processes which produce the the sensory contents figuring in consciousness and to which we do have access, the information that conscious self possesses on intentional states of the sort described above proves incomplete. Without access to causal processes, much less knowledge of their inner workings, conscious self can exercise little in the way of control. In the end, the conscious self finds itself catching the echoes of underlying mental processes, and, qua second-degree access, consciousness proves merely an instance of perception.

Carruthers locates the warrant for his claim in research into working memory:

This is the sort of memory that is involved when one needs to keep in mind an image or a phone number to report or write down a while later. It is also the short-term memory system in which episodes of inner speech take place. Indeed, many in cognitive science think that working memory is the system in which all conscious episodes play out. It is sometimes described as a “global workspace” because its contents are simultaneously available to many different faculties of the mind (for forming explicit memories, for drawing inferences, for guiding reasoning and planning, and for reporting in speech). But working memory is a sensory-based system. It uses so-called “top-down attention” to activate and sustain imagistic representations in conscious form. There is no place within it for purely abstract non-sensory states such as beliefs, goals, or decisions.

As working memory can only work with sensory-based contents and maintain them under a sensory form. Wherefore the identification of conscious self’s workings as mere perceivings. Mechanically speaking, there appears to be no way for conscious self to introduce non-sensory states into a sensory-based causal chain. For this reason, it could not influence the mental economy in the way accepted by folk psychology.

In the way of example, Carruthers provides the familiar case of a student trying to memorize vocabulary. The sight of the words on the page provoke images and memories which may eventually enter working memory and become conscious at which point the student is no longer memorize vocabulary but engaging with a sensory-based content, such as an image or memory. As the unconscious processes necessary to learn vocabulary compete with those necessary to sustain the image or memory, working memory and awareness will come round again to learning vocabulary, no thanks to the student’s efforts.

Our takeaway amounts to a warning to the effect that the domain of conscious self proves more restricted than we might imagine, the efficacy of self-control more limited:

In this manner our conscious minds are continually under the control of our unconscious thoughts. We decide what to pay attention to, what to remember, what to think of, what to imagine, and what sentences to rehearse in inner speech. There is control, of course, and it is a form of self-control. But is not control by a conscious self. Rather, what we take to be the conscious self is a puppet manipulated by our unconscious goals, beliefs, and decisions. Who’s in charge? Well, we are. But the “we” who are in charge are not the conscious selves we take ourselves to be, but rather a set of unconsciously operating mental states. Consciousness does make a difference. Indeed, it is vital to the overall functioning of the human mind. But a controlling conscious self is an illusion.

The vision here presented may shock certain readers with its stark reassessment of folk psychology. Yet that vision perhaps need not be as dire as Carruthers’ readers may find, and this for reasons contained within his own text. For, in responding “We are” to his own question “Who’s in charge”?, he leaves open the possibility that a more comprehensive vision of selfhood might better make sense of the situation and reconcile a person to her self. In short, the question is now “who is/are we?”.


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