What-it-is-likeness and the Stream of Unconsciousness
Sam Coleman (University of Hertfordshire)

part of: Qualities & Consciousness – a workshop with Dr. Sam Coleman (University of Hertfordshire)
November 29, 2019, 5:00am - 12:00pm
Institute of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences

Meeting room
Jilska 1
Praha 11000
Czech Republic

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Czech Academy of Sciences
University of Hertfordshire

Topic areas


Philosophers generally do not recognise the existence of genuine unconscious mentality. Those who acknowledge the importance of unconscious goings-on to mental life view these as intrinsically brute and blind physiological processes, and their end-goal is typically to reduce conscious life, too, to such a substrate. On the other hand there are philosophers who accept the central place of mental qualities, or qualia, in mental occurrences such as perception and thought, even going as far as to ground mental content in kinds of qualitative character, sensory and cognitive. But this camp of philosophers stresses that mental qualities can have only a conscious existence, and is led to denigrate, even to eliminate, apparently unconscious mentality. The standard move is to frame unconscious mentality as mere dispositions to conscious mentality – e.g. for Searle and Strawson, and many others, to ‘unconsciously believe’ that p is merely to have a disposition to consciously believe that p. I defend a conception on which there are genuinely occurrent, i.e. non-dispositional, unconscious processes, which count as mental by being properly contentful, and have their content in the way we know conscious mental processes to have theirs – thanks to the kinds of qualitative character, or mental qualities, they feature. More generally, I propose that one’s ‘mental stream’ (what is usually referred to as the stream of consciousness), that is to say the mental goings-on that amount to what is on one’s mind at a time, or what one is up to mentally speaking, is partly unconscious. And I argue that the stream of unconsciousness, as much as the stream of consciousness, takes the form of mental qualities, or qualia. There is thus one mental stream, only a part of which is in awareness at a time, but of a univocal qualitative (qualia-like) nature. Two arguments get me to this view: The first is an adaptation of an argument in Freud, who posits occurrent and contentful unconscious mental processes to fill gaps in the stream of consciousness, without which supplements the subject's doings  would be inexplicable according to psychological norms. The dilemma is thus to give up on psychological explanation, or else to posit genuinely mental unconscious processes to complete the conscious stream. The second argument secures the conclusion that the unconscious stream consists of mental qualities, sensory and cognitive, as the conscious stream does. The argument here involves cases where an effect or behaviour is produced unconsciously as well as consciously, such as in ‘restless leg syndrome’ and cases of unconscious pain behaviour. In waking life we unhesitatingly ascribe such behaviours to a quale as cause, e.g. the uncomfortable feeling the restless leg patient suffers. If we refuse to posit unconscious counterparts of such qualia as the causes equally in the unconscious cases, but explain these events instead in mere physiological terms, the threat is that the efficacy of qualia in waking life is undermined – for relevant competing physiological explanations exist alike in the waking case. The dilemma here is a choice between qualia being able to exist in both conscious and unconscious form, or being left epiphenomenal. I end by a brief examination of arguments against the notion of unconscious qualia, from the likes of Searle, Siewert, and Strawson, which turn out to be surprisingly weak.

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