Thursday, May 19, 2011

consciousness not necessary for reason

OCBBM | The long tradition of man as the rational animal, the tradition that enthroned him as Homo sapiens, rests in all its pontifical generality on the gracile assumption that consciousness is the seat of reason. Any discussion of such an assumption is embarrassed by the vagueness of the term reason itself. This vagueness is the legacy we have from an older ‘faculty’ psychology that spoke of a ‘faculty’ of reason, which was of course situated ‘in’ consciousness. And this forced deposition of reason and consciousness was further confused with ideas of truth, of how we ought to reason, or logic - all quite different things. And hence logic was supposed to be the structure of conscious reason confounding generations of poor scholars who knew perfectly well that syllogisms were not what was on their side of introspection.

Reasoning and logic are to each other as health is to medicine, or - better - as conduct is to morality. Reasoning refers to a gamut of natural thought processes in the everyday world. Logic is how we ought to think if objective truth is our goal - and the everyday world is very little concerned with objective truth. Logic is the science of the justification of conclusions we have reached by natural reasoning. My point here is that, for such natural reasoning to occur, consciousness is not necessary. The very reason we need logic at all is because most reasoning is not conscious at all.

Consider to begin with the many phenomena we have already established as going on without consciousness which can be called elementary kinds of reasoning. Choosing paths, words, notes, motions, the perceptual corrections in size and color constancies - all are primitive kinds of reasoning that go on without any prod, nudge, or even glance of consciousness.

Even the more standard types of reasoning can occur without consciousness. A boy, having observed on one or more past occasions that a particular piece of wood floats on a particular pond, will conclude directly in a new instance that another piece of wood will float on another pond. There is no collecting together of past instances in consciousness, and no necessary conscious process whatever when the new piece of wood is seen directly as floating on the new pond. This is sometimes called reasoning from particulars, and is simply expectation based on generalization. Nothing particularly extraordinary. It is an ability common to all the higher vertebrates. Such reasoning is the structure of the nervous system, not the structure of consciousness.

But more complex reasoning without consciousness is continually going on. Our minds work much faster than consciousness can keep up with. We commonly make genera assertions based on past experience in an automatic way, and only as an afterthought are we sometimes able to retrieve any of the past experiences on which an assertion is based. How often we reach sound conclusions and are quite unable to justify them! Because reasoning is not conscious. And consider the kind of reasoning that we do about others’ feelings and character, or in reasoning out the motives of others from their actions. These are clearly the result of automatic inferences by our nervous systems in which consciousness is not only unnecessary, but, as we have seen in the performance of motor skills, would probably hinder the process. [19]

Surely, we exclaim, this cannot be true of the highest processes of intellectual, thought! Surely there at last we will come to the very empire of consciousness, where all is spread out in a golden clarity and all the orderly processes of reason go on in a full publicity of awareness. But the truth has no such grandeur. The picture of a scientist sitting down with his problems and using conscious induction and deduction is as mythical as a unicorn. The greatest insights of mankind have come more mysteriously. Helmholtz had his happy thoughts which “often enough crept quietly into my thinking without my suspecting their importance . . . in other cases they arrived suddenly, without any effort on my part . . . they liked especially to make their appearance while I was taking an easy walk over wooded hills in sunny weather!” 20

And Gauss, referring to an arithmetical theorem which he had unsuccessfully tried to prove for years, wrote how “like a sudden flash of lightning, the riddle happened to be solved. I myself cannot say what was the conducting thread which connected what I previously knew with what made my success possible.” 21

And the brilliant mathematician Poincaré was particularly interested in the manner in which he came upon his own discoveries. In a celebrated lecture at the Société de Psychologie in Paris, he described how he set out on a geologic excursion: “The incidents of the journey made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, the transformation I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidian geometry!” 22

It does seem that it is in the more abstract sciences, where the materials of scrutiny are less and less interfered with by everyday experience, that this business of sudden flooding insights is most obvious. A close friend of Einstein’s has told me that many of the physicist’s greatest ideas came to him so suddenly while he was shaving that he had to move the blade of the straight razor very carefully each morning, lest he cut himself with surprise. And a well-known physicist in Britain once told Wolfgang Köhler, “We often talk about the three B’s, the Bus, the Bath, and the Bed. That is where the great discoveries are made in our science.”

The essential point here is that there are several stages of creative thought: first, a stage of preparation in which the problem is consciously worked over; then a period of incubation without any conscious concentration upon the problem; and then the illumination which is later justified by logic. The parallel between these important and complex problems and the simple problems of judging weights or the circle-triangle series is obvious. The period of preparation is essentially the setting up of a complex struction together with conscious attention to the materials on which the struction is to work. But then the actual process of reasoning, the dark leap into huge discovery, just as in the simple trivial judgment of weights, has no representation in consciousness. Indeed, it is sometimes almost as if the problem had to be forgotten to be solved.
19. Such instances were early recognized as not conscious and were called “automatic inference” or “common sense.” Discussions can be found in Sully, Mill, and other nineteenth-century psychologists.

20. As quoted by Robert S. Woodworth, Experimental Psychology (New York: Holt, 1938), p. 818.

21. As quoted by Jacques Hadamard, The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945), p. 15.

22. Henri Poincaré, “Mathematical creation,” in his The Foundations of Science, G. Bruce Halsted, trans. (New York: The Science Press, 1913), p. 387.