Cognitive snobbery: The Unacceptable Bias in Favour of the Conscious

There are many corrosive forms of discrimination. But one of the most dangerous is the bias in favour of consciousness, and the consequent denigration of the unconscious.
We see it everywhere. It’s not surprising. For when we’re unreflective – which is most of the time – we tend to suppose that we are our conscious selves, and that the unconscious is a lower, cruder part of us; a seething atavistic sea full of monsters, from which we have mercifully crawled, making our way ultimately to the sunlit uplands of the neocortex, there to gaze gratefully and dismissively back at what we once were.  It’s a picture encoded in our self-congratulatory language: ‘Higher cognitive function’; ‘She’s not to be blamed: she wasn’t fully conscious of the consequences.’: ‘In the Enlightenment we struck off the shackles of superstition and freed our minds to roam.’
But to make it thinkable and thought we need to shed our cognitive snobbery.
This is rather strange. We typically spend only about two thirds of each day in anything like the state of consciousness so robustly privileged by the philosophers, the doctors, the lawyers and the cognitive Establishment, and we spend a good deal of money trying to change that state with caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, sleeping pills, exercise-induced serotonin and any number of drugs. Even the most nerdishly cognitive of us often presume that our dreams tell us something fundamental about ourselves. Few, when pushed, assert that the lands described by Jung and Freud don’t exist at all. There are many coherent tales brought back from travellers to those lands: they match well our own recollections on awaking from sleep or anaesthesia, and with our (very common) out of body experiences and other altered states of consciousness.
We see it in the law, which encourages the psychiatrist’s attempt to recreate the patient in his own cognitive image, and, if satisfied that a patient will not come out of her vegetative state, is happy to endorse the withdrawal of life-sustaining interventions. For vegetation, after all, belongs back there in our evolutionary past; it’s the weed swaying in that sea. As Aristotle held, vegetation may have a soul, but it’s not as good a soul as ours because it doesn’t have the same sort of consciousness.
We see it in medicine. The job of a psychiatrist is to put the patient back in ‘her right mind’ – a complex and troubling notion which means (whatever else it might mean) a state approximating more nearly than before to the mental state of the treating psychiatrist. The medical team is relieved when a patient ’emerges’ (that idea, again, of evolving out of the howling dark) from unconsciousness. And of course we see it supremely (and supremely self-servingly) in philosophy, because philosophy is all about the exercise of those ‘higher cognitive functions’. When modern philosophers agree with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living, they really mean that if you can’t think in the focused, highly cognitive way that they do, you might as well bow out – a conclusion on all fours with the decisions of the judges in PVS cases. Lay people might think that philosophy is a no-holds-barred search for the truth about the universe: it’s not; it’s based on the assumption that the universe perceived and perceivable by our quotidian consciousness is all that there is, and that that consciousness is therefore the only tool available for probing the universe.
Human neural networks can process 11 dimensions. We normally operate on just four: three spatial and one temporal. The consciousness with which we’re obsessed is equipped only for those four. Four elevenths isn’t much. Perhaps patients in PVS are having the time of their life in dimension 5? Perhaps we’ll meet our beloved dead in dimension 8? At any rate it ought to be thinkable and, in the swashbuckling tradition of Enlightenment enquiry, thought.

  1. Reimann, Michael W., et al. ‘Cliques of neurons bound into cavities provide a missing link between structure and function.’ Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience (2017) 11: 48.