In Search of the Unconscious (commentary of the dossier For science HS108)

This remarkable dossier devoted to the unconscious is an opportunity to unify the points of view cited. The central idea (the unconscious is the main process on which the conscious emerges) is surrounded by partial and contradictory discourses. Some try to explain consciousness (Dehaene), others go so far as to denigrate its existence (Carruthers). Focusing on the unconscious brings the authors together more easily. The border with the conscious is given as blurred. The phenomenon of consciousness becomes incidental and left out. Can this satisfy readers who are keenly experimenting with this daily illusion?

At first I summarize the Stratium, self-organized mind theory. Then I insert each of the points of view of the file by indicating where their horizon becomes limited.

1) Stratium

is a self-organized mind theory based on its sensory inputs. The neurons receiving these inputs are connected in small groups that codify their regularities. Each group can take several configurations that are the symbolic words of the code. The code is mathematical in network theory.

The peculiarity of Stratium is to see a hierarchy in the organization of these codes. The states of the first-level groups are treated as semi-independent entries by a second-level group, then a third-level group, etc.

The hierarchy is local at its inception, which joins the classical vision of the brain divided anatomically into large centers dedicated to sensory processing. Higher levels, however, extend to the entire brain. They integrate more and more intimately the representations of the major centers, up to the conscious space.

This is the functional aspect of Stratium. A more fundamental aspect, necessary to explain the consciousness phenomenon, is the way information becomes qualitative in its neural treatment. To understand it you have to go below the neuron. We must look at how material reality itself takes on a dual aspect, that of an information structure and that of qualitatively specific substances.

Very briefly: when elements are organized, when their relationships form a set of information, the whole thing is additional information superimposed on the previous ones. This fusion representation is reducible to constituent information, but it does exist on its own. Indeed, different underlying configurations do not alter the superimposed representation. Representation is stable information at the level at which it evolves. It becomes an element in turn.

Over-taxation is not the replacement of information by its representation. It's their entanglement. It determines an additional level in complexity. The depth of the information structure is increasing. The entity thus built is not just any information assembly. It is integrated information, that is, each information unit is interdependent with the others.

In this theory the term 'representation' is no longer reserved for the mind that looks at matter. Reality self-represents, level of complexity after another. A representation becomes materialistic. It potentially replaces the notion of substance.

The definition of a level of material representation has important consequences. It is invisible from its constituents. Atoms form a molecule but do not know what a molecule is. Neurons form a word of language but do not know what the word is.

The level of representation exists only for the merged representation (that is its essence) and for representations above them. This descending vision (in the complex dimension) shows the constituents in the form of a whole. This is the qualitative aspect opposite to the quantitative aspect of the constitution.

Not lost? How to assemble all these peremptory assertions in an explanation of the consciousness phenomenon?

My assertions are not fanciful. They are well rooted in a materialistic ontology that it is too long to explain here. I want to keep your attention. There is a simple argument for giving value to this theory: it is the only one to perfectly explain your conscious experience from a materialistic reasoning, without making an illusion of it.

Indeed the phenomenon of consciousness is this remarkable double aspect that I have just described. It is both a fusional impression that we poetically call the 'thread of thought', and a set of contents called 'concepts'. You guess the hierarchy of these concepts that sinks into your unconscious. Your tried and tested consciousness is the final representation, the retro-control of the proposals previously built in your mind.

However, this retro-control is not illusory. It is the seat of intentions, of an identity, of a life project. These representations are reducible to the concepts that generate them but have an independent existence. They are not in the rules that organize the concepts but in the whole of their relationships.

The ontological and epistemic views complement each other. They are no longer in opposition. The conflict stemmed from the exclusive attribution of representative capacity to the mind, and the constitutive capacity to matter. Now matter represents its levels of information, and the spirit constitutes them through its hierarchical neural networks.

2) In Search of the Unconscious

The dossier of For Science takes up the main idea of Stratium (consciousness is an emergence of a mental process essentially unconscious). It is easy to find the idea of prioritizing the process, but it is never put in principle. It contradicts the quotes of Nick Chater, who sees the brain as a huge flat neural system. The consciousness phenomenon has been ignored. Let's see how interventions fit into Stratium.

From the unconscious to the consciousness

This diagram shows the mental hierarchy in the temporal dimension. Processing times are specific to each level of organization. A brief treatment at the base does not reach the conscious summit.

Stanislas Dehaene

'Blind vision' and 'heminegligence' reflect the existence of intermediate levels of consciousness only comprehensible in a hierarchy of the decision-making process. Acts are undertaken before access to consciousness. Some do not access it. The others can still be interrupted or modulated before they are realized.

Stanislas Dehaene insists: this does not make the unconscious the main decision maker. The treatment of the act is greatly enriched, in cognitive quality, by conscious integration. The unconscious proposes a habit, the conscious has it.

'Attentional blindness' becomes understandable knowing that these are representations that are sought in sensory data. If the only direction given to the act existed, no element of the visual field would be obscured.

Dehaene also confirms that the Bayesian brain is organized hierarchically.

On the other hand, Dehaene's theory of the origin of consciousness (the global ETG workspace) is insufficient. It competes with Tononi's TII integrated information theory. But the consciences explained by the two theories are not the same. The ETG is the awakened human consciousness (the top of the Stratium). The TII principle is the principle of representation rooted in information, which I have detailed earlier. The two theories are not rival but necessarily complementary.

Dehaene wants to demonstrate his theory by stimulating a neural assembly to trigger a conscious image. Here's what's going to happen: if it only stimulates, in this assembly, the neurons belonging to the ETG (supposed to be the support of consciousness), the guinea pig will experience a conscious image without depth, the ghost of the object evoked. If it stimulates all neurons from sensory input, the image will be fully tested. But it can achieve the same result by stimulating only sensory inputs (by presenting the object in the visual field). This will demonstrate that consciousness rests on the full depth of the Stratium and not just the ETG.

Peter Carruthers

joins the arguments of Michael Graziano and Nick Chater to say that consciousness is reduced to an inner gaze. She becomes almost illusory, a mere spectator of unconscious activity.

For the Stratium this position is that of the last layer of conscious integration, whose constituent processes are opaque to it. The final representation that sees that the close levels of its constitution, not beyond, because of the relative independence of the codes of neural groups.

However, this position is precisely in favour of the hierarchical construction of the mind, not its platitude. How would a habit settle if the unconscious had to reconstruct its entire organization in real time, according to each sensory stimulus? The mind would be an extremely slow chaos to react.

Worse, how would consciousness manage to retro-control this functioning? Because intentional retro-control does exist. It is a conscious attention that improves a musculoskeletal act, while it has no direct access to the detail of muscle coordination. Only a well-codified hierarchy can allow such adjustments without upsetting everything.

The flat mind does not explain in any way how bright points become representations already present in the mind, why some are intentions, or why a fringe of this process becomes a tried and tested consciousness. It is a much more reductive approach than Dehaene's. Moreover, Carruthers does not comment on the possibility of bridging the gap between subjective experience and neural processes. His position is far from it.

3) In conclusion

The record of For Science remains remarkable by the consistency of the articles with the main idea of an unconscious in the foreground in our behaviors, far more than most of us imagine.

Why does his share of control seem enormous to consciousness, spontaneously? It relates to the level of importance of what is dealt with: choice, personal destiny, elaborate representations of objects and people. The underpinments of these processes appear to be negligible because they are not dealt with directly.

It is a solipsistic position of consciousness. By observing her such devices, she can see that most acts are not controlled directly or are impossible to consciously correct. Therefore, there is bound to be an in-conscious person responsible for these proposals to be acted upon. 

Freud is brought into disrepute in this matter, and rightly so, for three reasons:

1) Certainly he is the first to have formalized the unconscious in detail. But he is not the first and his success has vampirized research on the unconscious, while he has made two major mistakes:

2) Freud has made the unconscious a kind of second brain capable of reasoning in a rival situation of consciousness. It's not true. It is only a primary programming of consciousness become difficult to access because neural groups do not share the same codes.

3) Freud imposed his own unconscious conflicts (Oedipus) as fundamentals for humanity. But each of us is the product of different social circles, from the family to the general culture, and manufactures his personal little neuroses.

But Freud's model was the first attempt to prioritize the mind. This idea must be defended against the tendency to make it a vast single neural system, which constitutes a conceptual regression.

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