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Book Review of 'Unthink'
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.



MG Warrier

3 years ago

Looks interesting. Looking forward to glancing through, when I stumble on the book. But, the comment,
"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" says it all. No, I am not that grandfather, still... Emperical evidence and 'statistics' can mislead you, and so the thinking being branded RATIONAL need not be necessarily rational in real sense. But a little bit of confusion helps us forget some of the really painful realities.

Two issues that make Women Feel Empowered

Akshara helps with the two main ways that empower women


Fear and social restraints have held back women of all ages over the centuries. These restrict their education, choice of work, mobility, political participation and expression.


Without education and skills, they end up living life that is incomplete and dependent.


Akshara is a Mumbai-based, non-profit, women’s rights organisation and resource centre that works at empowering women to achieve their true potential. It was founded by

Dr Nandita Gandhi and Dr Nandita Shah who were active in the contemporary feminist movement in the 1980s. Akshara started in 1995 as a resource centre for collecting gender-based material and data for students and activists. It moved on to designing safety programmes for young women and men. One of its strategic goals is to work with young people.


Akshara thinks it is essential to understand the issues and views of this large segment of 430 million Indians in the age group of 15 to 34 years because the country is at the cusp of a social transformation. Akshara asked itself: Can we give a helping hand to young women and train men to be allies in the struggle for equality?


Since 2008, Akshara’s “Empowering Dreams Programme” uses a three-way strategy: to locate the most deserving poor girls in slums to give them financial assistance for completing their education; to introduce them to gender rights so that they can protect themselves from violence and, lastly, provide them with livelihood skills so they can be financially independent. One of the many successful graduates of the programme, Uma, said, “The most important thing I have learnt in the last two years is survival skills. I have learnt to stand up for myself and make my own decisions. I don’t need others to decide for me.” Every year, Akshara engages with about 150 underprivileged girls in two municipal wards around the Gender Resource Centre at Elphinston Road West (Mumbai).


Akshara’s “Youth for Change Programme” aims to engage young men as allies in supporting gender equality and for prevention of violence against women. It works with youth who have joined the social service units of their colleges and takes them on ‘safety walks’. This gives training by experience on safety related to sexual harassment. It takes up advocacy to prevent harassment in colleges and their neighbourhoods. After attending one of Akshara’s workshops, Sagar realised the need to help his mother with housework, something he had never done before. Another trainee said, “As men, it is our duty to prevent sexual harassment. How would I feel if my sister was harassed? I would not want someone else’s sister to suffer.The safety audits helped in making my college safe.”


Akshara believes that it is important to campaign not just at the individual level but also at the city level, to prevent violence against women. Akshara’s “Safe City Programme” works with the Police (with which it has assisted in setting up the 103 emergency helpline for women), and with BEST (by training conductors to prevent sexual harassment by commuters). In December 2013, the chief minister of Maharashtra acknowledged Akshara’s petition containing 30,000 signatures for a comprehensive action plan for Mumbai, saying: “A copy of the comprehensive action plan should be sent to the chief secretary and each department involved should revert on which of the recommendations they can initiate action on.”


Akshara’s future plans are for pursuing its vision of a free, equal and just society for men and women. Akshara has been raising its funds through individual donations, donor agencies and corporate houses and donations from readers are welcome.


Akshara Centre

Neelambari, 5th Floor, Road No. 86, Opp Portuguese Church, Gokhale Road,

Dadar (West), Mumbai - 400028, INDIA. Tel: (022) 24316082.




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