Today I am going to take a turn which some readers may be uncomfortable with, as I will explain at the end of this post. Notwithstanding some people's discomfort, for me, it must be done.
Over the last 42 months I have referred to and pointed out many examples of characteristic human behaviors. We have to take those observations very seriously, for how else are we to explain why humans are wrecking the biosphere and thus destroying their own habitat?
If we take those observations seriously, we must then ask where do these behaviors come from?
Regarding these destructive behaviors, if you were to ask humans to explain themselves—for example, why are you fucking up the oceans?—you would (and do) hear some pretty bizarre stuff. Rationalizations, billowing clouds of bullshit, avoidance of the question—all sorts of stuff. Beyond the obvious distinction we must constantly draw between what people say and what people do, we must ask ourselves where this babbling, obfuscation and denial come from.
In fact, much of the confusion and conflict in the world, and certainly 99.99% of the bullshit, springs from people taking what other people say at face value. What all but a few, knowledgeble people say about these important matters—fucking up the oceans—must never be taken at face value.
Experience with the difference between talking and doing quickly reveals that humans are deceiving themselves just as much as they are trying to deceive you. If that is so, and observation confirms it again and again, where do phenomena like self-deception come from?
Such behaviors must come from the human mind. Simply put, there is no other place they could come from. And since the vast majority of human beings are simply unaware of what they doing or why—they will tell you one thing, but they are also, in effect, doing something else—one must posit and accept the existence of the unconscious mind. There is simply no way around it. Your only alternative is to continue to take what humans say at face value, remain mired in pointless, invariably prejudicial human conflicts and confusion (e.g. politics), and, in the end, kiss the biosphere goodbye.
To be clear, I am not talking about typical human scheming where (for example) a politician or banker says one thing while intending to do another. There is nothing unconscious about lying and intention. I am looking at things at a much deeper level. For example, the whole point of politicizing global warming, even for those who believe it is happening and human-caused, is to do nothing substantial about it, e.g. via carbon markets, cap & trade schemes, carbon taxes, subsidies for renewables, funds for advanced battery research, etc.
Why is that? That's the level I'm looking at.
An excellent essay by psychologist/fiction writer Frank Tallis provides us with some useful background material. It is called The Unconscious Regained. It is long, and you can read it on your own, so I will quote it briefly. It seems that the idea of the "unconscious" has been in and out of favor for many centuries now. For example, let us look at the so-called Age of Reason.
The modern history of the unconscious begins with the posthumous publication in 1765 of New Essays on Human Understanding, by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In this work, Leibniz described the mind as a marriage of conscious and unconscious parts, and suggested that behaviour could be influenced by what he called minute perceptions - that is, perceptions that occur outside of awareness.
This idea was not welcomed by Enlightenment thinkers, who preferred to think of the mind as wholly transparent and rational. Indeed, they suggested that the workings of the mind could be profitably compared with a table clock - numerous examples of which were beginning to appear in the fashionable salons of Europe. Leibniz had broken ranks with The Age of Reason. His doctrine of minute perceptions strongly suggested that human beings could behave irrationally, and subsequently, his precocious enquiry into unconscious mental life was rejected (and then more or less neglected for over a hundred years).
Towards the end of the 18th century, however, the rise of Romanticism resulted in a complete revision of Enlightenment values, and the reintroduction of the unconscious as a key idea among those with an interest in the mind.
This historical stuff is interesting, but has little bearing on the human situation in the 21st century. In the modern era, the idea of the unconscious begins with Sigmund Freud. Here is the important text.
One of Freud’s greatest achievements was his evangelical promotion of the unconscious. He rescued it from the obscure backwaters of philosophy, psychiatry, and mesmeric stage shows, and branded it for general consumption. After Freud, the idea of a submerged agency – or hidden intelligence – that might reveal its motives in dreams, became widely accepted, and by the time the critics were landing their most powerful punches on the body of psychoanalysis, the Freudian unconscious was already an established feature of cultural life...
But Freud’s real achievement – even more than his cultural conquest of the western world – was his estimation of the importance of the unconscious; an estimation that is arresting on account of its sheer magnitude.
In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, written between 1915 and 1917, Freud claimed to have delivered the ‘third blow’ to narcissistic humanity. Copernicus had delivered the first, depriving humanity of a central place in the cosmos, and Darwin had delivered the second, by proving our animal ancestry. Freud believed that by emphasizing the importance of unconscious processes in mental life, he had delivered the third and most wounding blow: our most valued characteristics – free will, rationality, and a sense of self – are mere illusions, and we are all the products of unconscious and uncontrollable forces.
The fact that Freud placed himself among such distinguished company as Copernicus and Darwin has always raised the hackles of Freud’s enemies; however, Freud’s hint that his insight into the importance of unconscious mental life might in some ways be even more significant than the heliocentric universe and evolution, reliably promises the spectacle of apoplectic rage. Yet, in this respect, most contemporary neuroscientists would agree that Freud was very probably right.
I am not going to beat around the bush—most, if not all, of Freud's ideas about how the unconscious works are laughable and thus worthless. And the same can be said of Carl Jung and many others. However, some observations, like the defense mechanisms of Anna Freud and others, have enduring value. For example, denial and rationalization are defense mechanisms. Surely no one can doubt the ubiquity of these cognitive behaviors in human affairs.
All theories of human motivation must begin with a theory of mind, and that theory must start by positing the existence of the unconscious. The questions then become what does the unconscious contain? and how and to what extent does the unconscious influence or drive human behavior?
Thus, if you observe humans destroying the biosphere, and they deny that they are doing just that, which is most often the case, then if you want to know why they are destroying the biosphere, you must ask what unconscious motivations drive such destructive (and self-destructive) behavior?
If you don't accept this formulation, I can not help you, and your reading of this blog differs little from the typical human fascination with train wrecks and other disasters, not to mention unhealthy wallowing in a state of fear and angst.
Freud's comparison of the unconscious with Copernicus and Darwin is apt and correct—"the ‘third blow’ to narcissistic humanity." However, the "third blow" has not been accepted in the way the first two have. Why is that?
Astronomical observation easily confirms that the Earth is not the center of the solar system, the Milky Way, the local group of galaxies, or the observable Universe. The fossil record the Earth's rocks retain easily confirms that evolution is a fact, although humans are still capable of denying that evolution occurred. In these two cases, we are on solid ground.
But in the case of the unconscious mind, there is great resistance to accepting its existence. It is easy to see why, to wit—
- Humans have no direct access to it; by definition, it lies outside of awareness.
- Humans do not like the idea that they are not entirely in charge of their own lives. That's why humans are hostile to the idea of luck (randomness), and invent bullshit like "you make your own luck."
- Scientists have been traditionally hostile to things they can not sense or measure with instruments
Regarding the third point, Tallis makes the straightforward observation that brain scientists (mostly neurologists and psychiatrists) now routinely make fairly superficial, micro-level observations of how the unconscious works. For example, see my recent post Why Doesn't Negative Information Go Viral? That's why Tallis called his essay The Unconscious Regained.
That said, the first two points remain. Those points explain why humans generally are hostile to the idea of the unconscious, as I said at the outset. Some of you reading this may be baffled by this post, or reject what it says, or simply not process what it says.
So it goes.
This is the first in a series of posts before the End of Time on July 26, 2013. To prepare for those new essays, you might review my posts The Limits Of Free Will In Human Action, Seeing The Signal In The Noise, and Psychotherapy For Homo Sapiens.
The idea that the human mind is a "blank slate" whose eventual contents are filled entirely by childhood experience and absorption in a culture is, to be frank, ridiculous. But in considering the unconscious, humans are bumping up against the dangerous shoals of Determinism, and the idea that their behavior is largely out of their hands is unthinkable.
However, to understand the Human Condition, you are going to have to think about the unthinkable. Otherwise, how are we to ever understand why humans are destroying their own habitat, and can not stop themselves from doing so? This is not happening just in the United States; it is happening everywhere on Earth where humans live.
In short, without a "good enough" theory of mind and the unconscious, humans are merely puttering around in the dark. Such a theory need not be complicated, at least if one leaves out many of the details. It must, however, be falsifiable.
Think about it.