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In Blindsight by peter watts, the author mentions something called a "neurological bureaucracy", in which the conscious mind has little purpose other than acknowledging what has already been thought and done by the unconscious mind and taking credit as its own work. The book uses examples like Eureka moments and a musician performing, where the unconscious mind takes control over the conscious mind and is superior.

"Every dancer and acrobat knows enough to let the mind go, let the body run itself."

Despite being fairly convincing, the theory seems to be in conflict with the very nature of human cognitive process. Does such claims has any backing in current scientific discovery?

Is being totally unconscious superior? Or is it only superior to a conscious mind in a "Complete" Chinese room scenario, where the system/brain has already been fed with enough information to compute all its "results"?

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Q: Is unconsciousness actually superior to the conscious mind?

Short answer:

In some aspects, yes; in some, no. Both unconsciousness and consciousness are essential for organisms that have evolved to have consciousness; these organisms can’t survive without both of them.

Long answer:

All mental processes are unconscious in the sense that we never are conscious of the processing at any of the processing steps in any mental process (e.g., we never are conscious of the processing at any of the processing steps in the processing processes of vision, sound, taste, language, decision making, etc. and never know what the processing at each step is like); we are conscious of only the results of some mental processes (e.g. we are conscious of the vision, sound, taste, meaning of words, and decisions resulting from the corresponding mental processes and know what they are like) while the vast majority of mental processes have unconscious results, such as the information of the pressure in the blood vessels, blood pH level, and blood electrolyte and hormone levels (e.g., we never are conscious of the pressure in the blood vessels, blood pH level, and blood electrolyte and hormone levels and never know what they are like).

(N.B. To avoid confusion, it should be note that mental processes whose results we can be conscious of are often called conscious mental processes even if we are not conscious of the processing at any step of their processing processes, and that mental processes whose results we cannot be conscious of are often called unconscious mental processes.)

The major differences between unconsciousness and consciousness is that the following occur if something is conscious but do not occur if it is unconscious:

  1. The mind has the awareness and experiences of what that something is like – what the vision of the house is like, what the sound of the song is like, what the taste of the honey is like, etc. (Compare these to the unconsciousness cases: the mind doesn’t have the awareness and experiences of what the blood pressure at 120 or 130 mmHg is like, what the blood pH of 7.35 or 7.45 is like, what the blood sodium level of 135 mEq/L or 140 mEq/L is like, etc.)

  2. The mind can share the information of that something to its various parts that include the cognition part, the symbolizing part, and the storage part. Thus, it can think about, analyze, compare, and do other mental activities regarding that something intentionally; it can directly represent that something with symbols – written signs, sounds, gestures, etc. – thus, it can communicate information about that something to other members of its species; and it can intentionally memorize and recall that something, at least with some details and for some time. For example, we can do these activities (think about, analyze, compare, talk and write about, and memorize and later recall) to the vision of the house, the sound of the song, and the taste of the honey, but we cannot do these activities to the unconscious registration of the blood pressure, blood pH, and blood sodium level.

These properties of being globally available for various mental processes, being able to be stored and retrieved, and reportability certainly give organisms that have consciousness flexible response mechanism to cope with infinite challenges it may encounter in the environment and thus increase the survival chance of the organisms and their species.

Thus, although unconsciousness performs the vast majority of mental processes and are essential to life, there are something that is survival-promoting that unconsciousness cannot do while consciousness can. In the former case, unconsciousness may be considered superior while in the latter case consciousness is certainly superior.

Q: Is being totally unconscious superior?

A: From the discussion above, the answer is obviously “no”.

Q: Or is it only superior to a conscious mind in a "Complete" Chinese room scenario, where the system/brain has already been fed with enough information to compute all its "results"?

A: In real life, there are infinite, unpredictable challenges in the environment to tackle with. It’s impossible to feed the Chinese room with infinite amount of information for infinite scenarios in advance so that anyone in the room can automatically respond to each scenario correctly. This is true in the case of organisms as well. It’s impossible to have an unconscious system in any organism pre-fed with infinite information to cope with infinite challenges. That’s why consciousness evolves to tackle this problem of infinite challenges.

If it were possible to feed an infinite amount of information into a system, including an unconscious system, the answer to this question would probably be yes; but in real life, it’s not possible to do so.

References.

  1. Earl B. The biological function of consciousness. Front Psychol. 2014;5:697. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00697.

  2. Dehanene S. Fathoming unconscious depths. In: Consciousness and the brain. Penguin Books. 2014. New York, New York, USA. ISBN 978-0-670-02543-5, 978-0-14-312626-3. p 47-88.

  3. Dehaene S, Changeux JP, Naccache L, Sackur J, Sergent C. Conscious, preconscious, and subliminal processing: A testable taxonomy. Trends Cogn Sci. 2006 May;10(5):204-211. DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2006.03.007.

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent Answer! $\endgroup$ – Quartz2 Sep 30 at 15:32
  • $\begingroup$ I thought the ending the author has shown to us is extremely bleak, either remain conscious and uncompetitive when competeting with other species in the universe and die out or become totally unconscious, losing sense of self. That regain my faith on my conscious mind $\endgroup$ – Quartz2 Sep 30 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the compliment. I’d like to recommend reading Earl B. “The biological function of consciousness” in detail. It has an extensive discussion on whether “the conscious mind has little purpose other than acknowledging what has already been thought and done by the unconscious mind and taking credit as its own work” and offers evidence-based answers to the problem. $\endgroup$ – user287279 Sep 30 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ Would definitely take a look in it! $\endgroup$ – Quartz2 Oct 2 at 4:52

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