Chapter 3

Consciousness of unconsciousness

With that out of the way, then, here we go. The first effect I want to observe in our consciousness is perhaps the easiest on a superficial level; but it is already quite mysterious:

We are aware that we are not always conscious.

Let me state this explicitly as an effect, and show the pair of facts that contradict each other: (1) We do know that we have lost consciousness (e.g., we know we fall asleep sometimes). (2) It is impossible to be conscious-of-being-unconscious, and therefore, we have no direct way of knowing that we are unconscious.

Obviously, the way out is going to be that we are somehow indirectly aware of having been unconscious.

But the first thing to do is to establish whether we are simply misreading the evidence. Obviously, what I am talking about is the fact that when we fall asleep, not all of our sleep is taken up with things like dreams. There are times when we are just plain not conscious. Is this the case, or do we just think, when we are awake, that we weren't conscious during sleep?

This alternative would amount to saying either that (a) when we're asleep, we're conscious, but just not aware of being conscious or (b) we were conscious during sleep, but just forget it when we wake up. In either case, the idea that we've lost consciousness would be an illusion.

Let us test hypothesis (a): we are conscious during sleep, but not conscious of being so. This would mean that there is an act that deserves the name "consciousness" which is not aware of itself. And in fact, psychology uses the term "consciousness" in a sense like this: reactions to the environment involving the nervous system, whether you are "aware" of what is going on or not.

This means, then, that there are two entirely different kinds of acts that are called "consciousness:" one in which you are "aware of being conscious," and the other in which you are not, though something is "going on."

Now if we take this second sense of "consciousness," essentially what is happening is that the organism is reacting to something acting on it, and nothing more. There is nothing special about the fact that it is the nerves that are doing this reacting, except that presumably they are also what does the other kind of reacting where you know what's going on. For instance, in sleep, you react to being in the same position for a while by turning over; but generally speaking, people who are waked up at this point don't give any indication that they felt the discomfort, even though the nervous system is obviously what is responsible for the turning. The point that I am making, however, is that what the nerves are doing at this subconscious level is just reacting.

That is, at this "subliminal" level (which can also happen during waking, when you are conscious of other things, but react to something you "didn't see"), your nerves are doing the same thing the liver does when it reacts to food in the stomach, secreting bile, or what the skin does when it reacts to ultraviolet light, producing melanin and a tan, what the mass of the body does when it reacts to the earth's mass, pulling us toward it, and so on. There is no way to single out what the nerves in subliminal "perceptions" do that makes them any different from any of these other reactions.

But if there is no difference in "subliminal conscious" reactions from the reactions of the liver, the melanin-producing layers of the skin, and the mass of the body itself, it follows that these reactions can also be said to "know" what they are reacting to, except that they just don't know that they know it. And in fact, all acts of the body would then be "subliminal consciousness"; and indeed, all acts of any body would be "subliminal consciousness."

So this definition of "consciousness" as "knowing something but not knowing that you know it" makes it impossible for anything to be unconscious. In that case, why call it "consciousness" rather than "Divine inspiration" or anything else you want to name?

That is, if alternative (a) is true, what we have concluded is that you have just decided to redefine "being active" as "being conscious" (as some philosophers, Leibniz and Whitehead among them, have done); but then you have made "consciousness" into a useless term, which makes its contradictory meaningless. In other words, you "solved the problem" of our being conscious of being unconscious by making a cute little word-play that simply defines "unconscious" out of meaningfulness.

But it still leaves the problem, because how can we be "conscious" in the "knowing that you know" sense that we are ever "conscious" in the "knowing but not knowing that you know" sense? How could, in this terminology, what is "conscious" in this second sense ever get to be "conscious" in the first sense if by definition we can't be conscious in the second sense of being conscious in the first sense? (That is, how could a simple reaction be known to be a reaction--unless it is "conscious" in our sense of the term?) So this "solution" not only makes the use of the word "conscious" otiose, it leaves the problem intact.

This investigation, then, confirms that strange analysis we made in the first chapter where we established that the conscious act was conscious of itself, or we couldn't know for certain that there is something--and yet we could.

If we take one more step here, we can, I think, lay the issue to rest. Suppose the conscious act (i.e. the one that knows it's knowing) is like this "subliminal consciousness," except that there's a "second act" that somehow knows it, making the complex of the two "the so-called self-knowing conscious act."

The first one by itself is just a reaction, like any other reaction, then; it is because it is known by the second one that it becomes (part of) consciousness in the meaningful sense.

The prediction from this hypothesis is that, since the "first act" is no different from any reaction at all, then it follows that any reaction which is known now deserves to be called "a conscious act" if you take the two (the reaction and the knowledge of the reaction) together.

If we now test this prediction, it means that, for example, your stomach's act of digesting food is consciousness of the food when you are aware of the digesting process; or your lungs' act of breathing is knowledge of the air when you can feel your lungs; or your skin becomes conscious of defending itself against the sun when you feel the prickles that indicate a sunburn is on the way; or the rock you see fall and hit the ground becomes conscious of what it is doing because that act is known by you.

But in point of fact, when you feel your stomach's action, it is not felt as "knowledge of the food being digested," but is a kind of pain, which your education and experience interprets as "I must be digesting." Similarly, the sensation of conscious breathing is not "knowing the air," as if it were analogous to seeing, but "knowing that something is going on in my lungs"; the act of knowing doesn't include the lungs' act inside it the way the act of "knowing that you are seeing this page" includes within it the "seeing of this page," rather than that "something is happening with my eyes." And so on. The two experiences are completely different.

And of course, since there is no real difference between the last example and the others except that the act (which supposedly becomes an act of "knowledge" by being known) is outside my body, and no reason why the act would have to be inside my body for knowledge of it to effect this transformation in it, then it really follows from this hypothesis that any act which becomes known by another is ipso facto an act of consciousness. And this in turn means that if we want to talk about anything as unconscious, it has become an act of consciousness by our mere talking about it--or that we have once again destroyed any practical distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness.

Let us take it then from this investigation that what we said earlier about the conscious act's being conscious of itself is true, only let us now define it and say that from now on, this is the sense in which "consciousness" is used in this book:

Conclusion 1: An act cannot be a conscious act if it is not aware of itself.

Whether the converse is true (that any act which "contains itself within itself"--which seems to be what "aware" is getting at) is by that very fact an act of consciousness or not we have not established. All we have done is exclude anything that is not immediately aware of itself from being able to be called "consciousness"; and this is enough for our purposes here.

That is, the above may not be a definition of "consciousness," but simply a property all conscious acts have. If something doesn't have this property, it can't be called "consciousness" in any meaningful sense. What I was saying above is whether having only this property means that it has to be consciousness is not clear; and both would be necessary for a definition.

Anyhow, if you're just reacting, then that's unconscious; and so "subliminal consciousness" from now on is not consciousness; it is precisely an unconscious reaction (whether it involves the nervous system or not).

Now then, what about the second sense in which the problem can be "solved" as "bad formulation"? This sense assumes that "conscious" is what we mean it to be, that while you're asleep, you actually know that you know what is going on, but that you forget this upon waking, so that afterwards, you think that you were unconscious, but you were actually conscious.

Well, we do forget things, so that this also sounds plausible. But if we test this hypothesis, we find that our "forgetting" upon waking up is quite different from ordinary forgetting. First of all, we do remember, sometimes, dreams we had during sleep; and if people are waked up during "rapid-eye-movement" sleep, they report the dream as something they were conscious of. Yet when they are waked up at other times, they do not report having been conscious at all.

So this hypothesis now must distinguish between the "forgetting" we do of certain facts, and forgetting the dreams we had during sleep, and the immediate and total forgetting we have when waked up out of non-REM sleep. Ordinary forgetting deals with the inability to reawaken some particular form of consciousness, not total non-awareness.

Furthermore, when people are waked out of sleep, and indeed every time we wake up, what occurred before the "forgotten" period is easily recalled, and in fact is very often recalled in such a way that the person denies that there was any "gap." "I wasn't asleep, I was just resting my eyes; I heard what you were saying," he says, and reports it; you answer, "I said that twenty minutes ago; and we've been listening to you snore ever since." and he says, "What time is it? My God, I must have dozed off!"

This is a fairly common scenario, and is even more common for those who haven't simply fallen asleep, but been knocked out. The consciousness after waking seems to attach itself right to the consciousness before waking.

Now if there was actually consciousness during this gap, why is it so thoroughly forgotten that what went before it is remembered as flowing right through the gap, why is what went before it remembered so clearly, why is this kind of forgetting so different from waking-type forgetting, and why is it that this kind of forgetting seems to happen (a) always during sleep and on being "knocked out" chemically or physically, and (b) only during these times? Further, why is it that what is ordinarily forgotten can be remembered, but this kind of "forgetting" can't be brought back into consciousness?

It sounds like the only way you can sustain this hypothesis is to say that the kind of consciousness you have when you are asleep (and not dreaming) is a different sort of consciousness from the one you have while awake; such that afterwards it is indistinguishable from not having been conscious at all, while other kinds of "forgettings" can at least in principle be remembered.

But then this "other kind of consciousness which is indistinguishable in practice from being unconscious" is just another word-game that defines away the problem by defining consciousness in such a way that practically speaking it means the same (in the case of dreamless-sleep-"consciousness") as being unconscious.

Hence, this attempt to "solve" the problem by calling it a "badly formed problem" either leaves the problem intact or raises more problems than it solves.

A tedious journey to establish a fact what is so obviously a fact: we do in fact know that sometimes we are unconscious.

So we are left with the effect: We are conscious of having been unconscious, but how can we be so without being conscious-of-being-unconscious?

The cause is obvious, and was seen in the example of the man who dozed off. It is not that he was conscious of his unconsciousness as if he "perceived" it somehow as it was happening; but that there is an effect in his conscious state after he wakes up whose true explanation is his loss of consciousness.

And this would have to be the case. It is, in fact, what I spoke of in discussing evidence; if we know something but it is impossible to have direct awareness of it, then it has to be known indirectly. Hence, the cause of our knowledge-but-not-direct-knowledge is, as I said, that the fact we know indirectly is the cause of some effect in what we know directly.

Here, when the man says, "What time is it? I must have dozed off," he has done two things: (1) He has found the effect and accepted as a cause that he has lost consciousness, and (2) he has made a prediction from the factuality of the cause that his watch will show that it is twenty minutes later than it should be if he didn't lose consciousness.

Actually, the reasoning process is fairly complex, so let us pull it apart. The effect is his subjective experience (based on the fact that you can't directly be conscious of being unconscious, which necessarily entails that the unconscious time will seem not to have existed) of not having lost consciousness and the testimony of the people he is talking to who claim that he has.

There are two possibilities: either they are lying, or he lost consciousness. There is no reason for believing that they are lying; but still, people do play jokes on others, and so there's a real possibility that they might be lying.

But if they are lying, then it follows from this that no time went by, and his watch will say that it is 8:05, as he thinks it should be. If they are lying, then he was awake all the time (though with his eyes closed), and they couldn't have got over to his wrist and changed the time without his being aware of it. Yet the watch says 8:25; which contradicts the hypothesis that his companions are lying, and is perfectly consistent with his having dozed off. Hence, he accepts as a fact that he dozed off.

Note that it is conceivable that they could have staged an elaborate trick of misdirection of attention and changed the time on the watch; and so the man could be mistaken. But no one in his right mind accepts this sort of thing unless he has reason to suspect it a priori (from knowledge of their character or special circumstances).

Let me, while I am on this topic, mention a certain type of psychological experiment which I contend is immoral: The experimenter is trying to find out how much "social pressure" will affect what a person says (or thinks) is the case. He then sets up an experiment such that a whole roomful of people--who as far as the "subject" knows have no reason to be in collusion--are coached to tell the same blatant lie about something that is patently false; for example to call a green object "yellow." They are coached to respond truthfully to all other questions.

During the "examination of the acuity of perception," then, each of the people in the room is asked to state what he thinks the experimenter is pointing to; for example, what color card he is holding up. Everything goes fine until the green card is held up, and the other people say it is yellow, while the "subject" (the victim) says it is "green," of course. The others look at him oddly.

Things continue without incident through other colors, until the green appears again, whereupon the process is repeated; and it has been shown that it doesn't take many instances of this before the "subject" claims that the green card is in fact yellow.

This is supposed to show how intimidated we are by others; but there is a much simpler hypothesis. The man seeing what looks to him like a green object is confronted with the others' claims that it is actually yellow (i.e. it looks to everyone else as if it's yellow). There are then the same two explanations of this effect as the falling asleep: either there is something wrong with my eyes, or all these people are in a conspiracy to fool me and they're all lying. Absent any reason for the second, then it would be insane for anyone to hold it; and so the "subject" takes the (false) explanation that "These people aren't lying and there's something wrong with my eyes at the moment."

The reason I think that this is immoral is that we use others to confirm whether our senses are reacting properly, since we know that they can "play tricks on us," even though they are basically consistent. To tamper with this "checking" process, especially in the name of science, which is an attempt to find out what the facts are, deprives people of their best tool for checking whether they have found out the facts, and violates their rights as well as contradicting the act of "scientific investigation" in the very exercise of it.

So much for my sermon.

Something rather important, however, is lurking in what we said above. The man was told by his companions that he was asleep for twenty minutes, and he corroborated this by the independent evidence of the watch. But this says that there are two pieces of evidence for the same fact; which seems to be saying that there are two different effects which have the identical cause that he lost consciousness for these twenty minutes.

So have we got a disproof for the theorem that different effects have different causes, or do we have an effect? (i.e. that these two pieces of evidence seem to be different effects, but really aren't). Let us look. What is the effect in what the people said? Basically, it is the statement, "Twenty minutes went by; but you were not conscious of it." That is, the man wouldn't have prompted them to make it if he were conscious of the lapse of time; but their statement makes no sense unless the twenty minutes actually went by.

But let us say that the man says when he checks his watch, "The watch won't lie." And then he sees the time. But then what is the effect, precisely, here? The (non-lying) statement the watch makes about the unobserved time. That is, it is the fact that the man didn't notice any time elapsing, but the number on the watch makes no sense unless time actually elapsed. There would have been no point in consulting the watch unless he knew what the time "should" be if he stayed awake; and so--as effect--the time on the watch is identical with the statement, "Twenty minutes went by unnoticed by you."

In other words, even though these are two different concrete situations, the precise contradiction they are without the lapse of time is identical.

So we can say that the two different pieces of evidence are just two different "what is affecteds" that contain the same effect. Identical effects have identical causes, and different effects have different causes.

Another way of saying this is that predictions from theories actually are saying that there are different (and previously unsuspected) sets of objects that contain the same effect you think you have found the cause of. But to return to the main point, we can say this about our knowledge of loss of consciousness: While we may be fooled in a few instances by pseudo-effects in our "waking" consciousness, to claim that they always fool us and we never really do lose consciousness is insane.

That is, to hold that you never really do lose consciousness, you would have to hold that clocks and watches do funny things when you close your eyes; people who claim to have seen you asleep are lying; the earth slips on its axis when you close your eyes and it's dark out and an instant later open them and the sun is up--and the earth does this in time to the faulty clocks; radio announcers who report events in Japan as happening "while we slept" are lying, because there was no time for them to happen. And so on and so on. The whole physical and human world is engaged in a vast conspiracy just to fool you into thinking that you actually lose consciousness sometimes when you close your eyes.

As I said in the case of the "experiment" above, this conceivably could happen; and in fact there is no way to prove to someone who accepts it that it didn't happen, because what you would do would always be explained by him as "part of the conspiracy."

But that, as I say, is madness: the particular kind of madness which accepts as true something that merely can't be disproved when the weight of the evidence against it is overwhelming; and it is madness because in order to hold it you would have to believe that you are of such overwhelming importance that the world literally turns to accommodate itself to you (in this case, just to fool you). It is possible to think this way; but it is supremely irrational to do so.

So we must hold onto our sanity in philosophy, which means that one of the steps of Descartes' "method" is crazy: we must not throw out any hypothesis whose contradictory simply cannot be proved false.

But before we get into the interesting effect this new fact we have learned gives us, let me point out something important:

Conclusion 2: No sane person believes that only what he directly experiences is true.

Any person, that is, who says, "I will accept nothing as true unless I have direct experience of it" is going to have to say, "I never fall asleep." And he is not a rational person but a madman.

So right at the very beginning, we find that our direct experience is, at least in one respect, false. It is impossible for us directly to experience being unconscious; but it is impossible for us, really, never to lose consciousness, which means that we know something as true that we have no direct experience of.

This gives some hope that this method will allow us to "admit" that there is a real world.