Chris Paley’s new book on consciousness, the unconscious and thought
Chris Paley’s new book, Unthink, is his contribution to social psychology. Once a student of evolutionary biology and physics, it is his effort to add to a field where ‘revolutionary work was being done’. Unthink is a book that sets itself up for the, as yet, impossible task of understanding consciousness.
The book reads like an unlikely cross between Richard Dawkins’ and Deepak Chopra’s work. With chapter titles like “We feel our pain in the way others see our pain” or “A lamp doesn’t need to know why it shines light when its switch is flicked” and then going on to cite studies to show how, indeed, it is all about the processes behind the conscious mind.
The matter of consciousness has been traditionally dealt with in the framework of either philosophy or psychology. In recent times, it has been subsumed by neurosciences. Scientists have been labouring under the thesis that, since we can now see the brain at work, we can see the mind at work and all that goes with it. There are famous votaries of this idea, like Daniel Dennett.
This book however, takes a different approach to the problem. It uses numerous studies to illustrate inductively, that our existence and our consciousness is essentially deterministic. “We are mistaken about why we do what we do… Most of what we imagine we do consciously is in fact done by the unconscious.” If you wear red and go to a scary place for a date, you will make the other person fall in love with you easier, is one of the ideas in the book.
It happens often that you see a writer quote a philosopher or theorist but when you look into it, the rest of the theorists’ body of work goes completely against the arguments of the writer. In one of his passages, Paley uses the 18th Century philosopher David Hume to push his own point, “For Hume, ethics clearly belonged to the scientists.”
Hume was an empiricist but not a scientist, and Hume’s work denied the very existence of causation. Not to mention a dismissal of inductive reasoning, on which Paley’s book thrives. Hume also suggested that being free from cause and effect, man enjoyed true free will. Paley however argues that there is no consciousness except for the illusion created by the unconscious. He does not offer an explanation of any of these contradictions.
On the very next page comes the most egregious sign of the flaw in Paley’s line of ‘reason’. “Art and philosophy are how we think about things that haven’t yet become science,” goes the page title. He mistakes philosophy and art as being fields similar to science. The mistake is that the he expects the former to live up to the standard of science in their predictive capacities.
Paley seems to have little regard for rigour; his arguments are based on other studies and research with no congruity in terminologies or relationships between terminologies. For example, the whole book is about the conscious mind and unconscious processes and the mind per se. Yet, nowhere does he provide a working definition of these concepts, even for the purpose of the arguments in this book.
But going by Paley’s own thesis, “We can’t lift a finger consciously, let alone pick a partner or form a judgement.” One of the great ironies of many like Paley is that they dismiss the rationalism in humans, while attempting to prove the point rationally. Paley says, “Darwin and Copernicus revolutionised how we saw our place in the world. But there has never been a finding as unsettling as this: our experience of experience isn’t what we thought it was.”
What seems a novel epiphany to Paley is, in fact, one of the oldest questions in philosophical thought. Plato, who Paley quotes a few times, himself dealt with this problem in his Allegory of the cave. The Buddhist and Hindu philosophies have huge tracts dedicated to discussions of this problem.
On the last page, Paley says, “Your experience is that you make conscious decisions. You’ve now seen evidence that you don’t. So by telling you all this, have I robbed you of your conscious mind? Of course not. Knowing how an optical illusion works doesn’t stop you from being tricked by it.” Throughout the book, Paley comes across as a young teenager who believes he always knows better than the old grandfather. The grandfather smiles and continues to smoke his pipe.