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Cognitive snobbery: The Unacceptable Bias in Favour of the Conscious

There are many corrosive forms of discrimination. But one of the most dangerous is the bias in favour of consciousness, and the consequent denigration of the unconscious.

We see it everywhere. It’s not surprising. For when we’re unreflective – which is most of the time – we tend to suppose that we are our conscious selves, and that the unconscious is a lower, cruder part of us; a seething atavistic sea full of monsters, from which we have mercifully crawled, making our way ultimately to the sunlit uplands of the neocortex, there to gaze gratefully and dismissively back at what we once were.  It’s a picture encoded in our self-congratulatory language: ‘Higher cognitive function’; ‘She’s not to be blamed: she wasn’t fully conscious of the consequences.’: ‘In the Enlightenment we struck off the shackles of superstition and freed our minds to roam.’

We see it in medicine. The job of a psychiatrist is to put the patient back in ‘her right mind’ – a complex and troubling notion which means (whatever else it might mean) a state approximating more nearly than before to the mental state of the treating psychiatrist. The medical team is relieved when a patient ’emerges’ (that idea, again, of evolving out of the howling dark) from unconsciousness.

We see it in the law, which encourages the psychiatrist’s attempt to recreate the patient in his own cognitive image, and, if satisfied that a patient will not come out of her vegetative state, is happy to endorse the withdrawal of life-sustaining interventions. For vegetation, after all, belongs back there in our evolutionary past; it’s the weed swaying in that sea. As Aristotle held, vegetation may have a soul, but it’s not as good a soul as ours because it doesn’t have the same sort of consciousness.

And of course we see it supremely (and supremely self-servingly) in philosophy, because philosophy is all about the exercise of those ‘higher cognitive functions’. When modern philosophers agree with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living, they really mean that if you can’t think in the focused, highly cognitive way that they do, you might as well bow out – a conclusion on all fours with the decisions of the judges in PVS cases. Lay people might think that philosophy is a no-holds-barred search for the truth about the universe: it’s not; it’s based on the assumption that the universe perceived and perceivable by our quotidian consciousness is all that there is, and that that consciousness is therefore the only tool available for probing the universe.

This is rather strange. We typically spend only about two thirds of each day in anything like the state of consciousness so robustly privileged by the philosophers, the doctors, the lawyers and the cognitive Establishment, and we spend a good deal of money trying to change that state with caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, sleeping pills, exercise-induced serotonin and any number of drugs. Even the most nerdishly cognitive of us often presume that our dreams tell us something fundamental about ourselves. Few, when pushed, assert that the lands described by Jung and Freud don’t exist at all. There are many coherent tales brought back from travellers to those lands: they match well our own recollections on awaking from sleep or anaesthesia, and with our (very common) out of body experiences and other altered states of consciousness.

Human neural networks can process 11 dimensions. We normally operate on just four: three spatial and one temporal. The consciousness with which we’re obsessed is equipped only for those four. Four elevenths isn’t much. Perhaps patients in PVS are having the time of their life in dimension 5? Perhaps we’ll meet our beloved dead in dimension 8? At any rate it ought to be thinkable and, in the swashbuckling tradition of Enlightenment enquiry, thought.

But to make it thinkable and thought we need to shed our cognitive snobbery.




  1. Reimann, Michael W., et al. ‘Cliques of neurons bound into cavities provide a missing link between structure and function.’ Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience (2017) 11: 48.





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11 Comment on this post

  1. Thank you for this, Charles.
    I found it, as usual, interesting; and this time indeed very nostalgic : shades of RD Laing et al.
    I’m only sorry that you had to write it in the language of the currently hegemonic state of consciousness. Could you not have have shed your own cognitive snobbery and communicated your thoughts through one of the 4+n dimensions that are unjustly despised since the so-called Enlightenment ?
    (Perhaps, despite your best resolutions, you are too left-brain dominated ? (cf your post of November)
    More seriously, I’m not sure that your argument consists of anything more than stating that no-one, judge, doctor or psychiatrist, really knows what is happening inside the mind of a PVS patient. The rest is good rhetoric (denigration of the unconscious… self-congratulatory language … atavistic sea full of monsters ….) with a few straw men thrown in; but I’m afraid that it does not seem to change the state of any of my 11 dimensions.

  2. Many thanks, Anthony.
    I wrote it in that language because that language is the lingua franca of philosophical discourse. I am doing my best to shed my own serious and seriously tyrannous cognitive snobbery. My attempts to do that do indeed involve trying to become fluent in more fecund languages – languages which engage more than just the top few millimetres of my brain. And of course I’m far, far too left brain dominated. Knowledge of that domination increases my desire for freedom.
    It’s true that one important corollary of the argument is that no one really knows what’s going on in the mind – or the brain, indeed – of a PVS patient. But it’s much more widely repercussive than that, surely? If there’s anything in the argument at all we need to realign radically our understanding of our selves and all other selves, and the principles we use to describe what it means for human beings to thrive.

    1. Anthony Drinkwater

      Thank you for your reply Charles.
      I’m too much of a rationalist, I’m afraid – stuck with the same lingua franca as you, but with no great desire to shed it.
      However, my nostalgia trip is deepening : thank you for that ! “When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words”

  3. I posted this last week but presumably because a gave a link without the {dot} it has been lost in transmission. I will have another go.

    I said something to the effect that the paper by Michael Reimann, et al. ‘Cliques of neurons bound into cavities provide a missing link between structure and function.’ Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience (2017) has been much hyped and created a lot of controversy since its publication. We should not, perhaps, say that ‘[h]uman neural networks can process 11 dimensions’ without making it clear that the word ‘dimension’ does not have the same meaning in the Reimann paper (and others in the same research area before and after its publication) as when it refers to the ‘dimensions’ of space and time and/or, as John Yohan puts it, ‘how the brain represents them.’ The use of the word ‘represents’ is also somewhat confusing as the brain does not ‘represent’ space and time. Nonetheless, Yohan explanation of the issue in his blog Neurologism is reasonably clear, so for the sake of brevity it will do. (It has is a link to Reimann’s paper that has an interesting/controversial comments section following it)


  4. Keith: many thanks. The author of the post for which you helpfully provide a link says that his key comment on the Reimann is: ‘the word ‘dimension’ in this paper has nothing to do with the dimensions of space.’ I’m not sure why he felt that needed to be said. It is perfectly plain to anyone reading the paper that ‘dimension’ is not used in that way. Nor did I imply that (for instance), dimensions other than space and time in which our ‘beloved dead’ might be located had much in common with space and time, any more than the dead themselves, in whatever state they may exist, have much in common with our own presently constituted unities of mind/body/spirit. Being spatial and temporal creatures, we’re forced (unless we’re first-rate mathematicians) to use clumsy and necessarily misleading similes and metaphors, drawn from our experience of plodding through space and time, in order to have conversations about anything that’s unconscious or subconscious.

    1. Charles – thanks for your reply. You say: ‘The author [John Yohan] of the post for which you helpfully provide a link says that his key comment on the Reimann is: ‘the word ‘dimension’ in this paper has nothing to do with the dimensions of space.’ I’m not sure why he felt that needed to be said.’ The reason why he said this, as he explains in some detail, is that it has been hyped to the point where people are using these “dimensions” as if they are ‘like’ space and time. Indeed, in the Frontiers of Science article Yohan cites, one of the authors describes a hierarchy of dimensions starting with those of space at 1, 2 and 3. (1)

      Obfuscation and the misuse and distortion of language are quite common in neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence, etc.. (1) Scientists should take care with their nomenclature and when using terminology used in mathematics that does not have the same referent as in other fields of science and/or common usage. Neuroscientists need to be particularly careful as they are always in danger of committing the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. (They should also be very wary about using 11 dimensions given it is, so to speak, the “magic” number of dimensions in some theoretical physics.) Yohan addresses this problem by simplifying and grounding the paper’s claims. ‘In fact’, he says, ‘given that the brain contains around 80–100 billion neurons, we might consider 11 dimensions to be rather low for sub-networks, if we remind ourselves that dimension in this case simply means the number of neurons that are connected to each other.’

      Finally, the penultimate paragraph of your post does appear to use ‘dimension’ with a more space/time meaning than just a formal name for information processing by neural sub-networks. (2) Given (no space/time to explain here), that mathematics can be for the most part expressed and explained reasonably succinctly in ordinary language without too much loss of essential precision and “meaning”, I cannot accept your assertion that in the absence of a first-rate understanding of mathematics we are ‘forced to use clumsy and necessarily misleading similes and metaphors.’ For sure, in the case of quantum mechanics, we do run into philosophical problems which might cause problems at the quantum level of the brain and computing. (3) However, we should not, I believe, look for these problems where they do not exist at this level of neural information processing.

      I realise you are trying to underscore a point about the unconscious and subconscious, but I think Yohan and I can raise legitimate concerns about the dangers of hype. Although I accept some of the points you raise, I’m inclined to approach the issue from a different direction.

      1. ‘Blue Brain Team Discovers a Multi-Dimensional Universe in Brain’. Networks. Frontiers of Science (Neuroscience 12th June 2017) The use of ‘universe’ sets the tone.
      2. As I said in my first post above, Yohan’s use of ‘represents’ is an example of this. About forty years ago I spent a great deal of time on the misuse of ‘represent’ in the “brain sciences”, so-called AI, etc..
      3. ‘Four elevenths isn’t much’ looks like 4 of 11. The four dimensions of space/time are not a subset of the eleven “dimensions”, i.e., a connected group of neurons.
      4. Of course, with Lakatos in mind, the mathematisation of a science without adequate empirical confirmation/refutation of theories could be a sign of pseudoscience. (No space for fine distinctions.) Even in the case of quantum mechanics, we should not forget the efforts of phenomenologists like Husserl, London, Bauer, Margenau, French, Bueno, et al in trying to resolve such issues in quantum mechanics as the measurement problem, pre-understanding and (un)consciousness. London and Bauer (1939) were criticised by Putnam and Shimony in the 1960s but as they later conceded they had not understood them.


  5. Many thanks for this, Keith. Yes, hype is a danger, but the cure for it, in this case, is simply to read the original paper.
    I accept your four points. But the 11 dimensions are more likely to connote something than connote nothing. And that’s where the problem starts. How do we, who know only space and time, begin to discuss what they may connote? I can see that there’s an argument for saying that discussion in any medium other than mathematical equations will necessarily mislead. But there’s also a counter-argument. Perhaps the very inadequacy of our stilted four-dimensional talk can teach us something: can give us a vertiginous sense of what it might mean to transcend those four dimensions. I get that sense when I ponder the formulation: ‘Before Abraham was, I am’. And when I ponder it I acknowledge that the manner of existence referred to there is not remotely comparable to the sense in which I contemplate my own existence; that there can be no location either in space or time for an entity who experiences being in that way. Does that mean that we should stop the conversation there, saying that this is now ‘mystery’, to be apprehended, not comprehended? Well, possibly. Many have thought so. Certainly it means that when we speculate that the dead may be in other dimensions, that speculation should bristle with the sort of footnotes that you’ve drafted. For ‘being’, for us, inevitably involves reference to our modes of being, and ‘in’ inevitably invokes our understanding of location. But surely comprehension and apprehension aren’t neatly divided. Don’t they bleed into one another in strange and complex ways? That, really, was the only point of my post.

  6. Thanks, Charles. I agree that the cure for hype would be to read the original Reinmann et al paper. Unfortunately, some of the authors of the paper have been responsible for a lot of the hype. (see footnote 1 of my post) I have also been following the Blue Brain Institution’s output since its beginning in 2005 and as you might expect I have my concerns about the level of hype it generates.

    I do not believe the dead “survive” in other dimensions or indeed anywhere else, so on this matter I approach it from the position that such possibilities do not hold mystery for me beyond that of wondering what it is like for others that do believe in such mysteries. I take their experience and understanding seriously because it is, so to speak, somewhat silly to live and do philosophy without doing so. For example, Heidegger’s phenomenological hermeneutics was inspired by and has been influential on religious thinking, and at least the last two major propositions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus are “seriously” mysterious. I do try on occasions to understand such works from the point of view of theist thinkers, which may help me to better understand such areas of phenomenology mentioned in footnote 3 of my post.


  7. If I may throw in more scientific writers such as Feyerabend or Bohr for consideration in this type of discussion. They considered it difficult but important for researchers to jettison the learned language and lived thought processes (to become less judgemental).
    Presenting other views which contrast or detract from espoused ones often results in responses which can illuminate the writer rather than the written, so interpreting the ideas presented rather than the words, and then not applying any early judgement (which according to Feyerabend is not what happens) allows those other perspectives to interact. (I would say interact as learning.) As Feyerabend observes the language chosen does constrain rather than release the conceptual thought processes, and while he is referring specifically to scientific investigation it also reflects the social world within which any scientific research exists. Different people seem to manage and deal with those aspects in different ways, some move between the different philosophical approaches utilising each of them as they see necessary, others choose one and religiously adhere to it, yet others represent those known ones in one holistic framework often reflected in a more rounded/inclusive representation of ideas. Is not the real difficulty how to respect and allow others to have freedom of thought, allowing new and novel ideas to form no matter how they are communicated rather than leading a mind into familiar processes?

    Examples could be the debate over meat eating or assisted suicide, from certain worldviews the tensions these create for them would more easily be accommodated by others if they thought in a similar way to them, but that ignores the tensions in others worldviews. Consciously using a philosphy is definitely different from unconsciously including parts of any, but both processes do occurr. There seems to be no doubt that if humanity makes certain moral progressions eating other living beings will be perceived as abhorent, but in periods of change (Yes change is a constant) a mixture of views will exist. Following the same developmental process, at some stage the a similar situation is likely to apply to eating many of the items which vegetarians currently consume. So there is a need to properly recognize (or merely respect) different views if only because they created the other. As being alluded to in another blog entry, when anybody watches the sketch ‘The restaurant at the end of the universe’ do consider the implications of slavery and thought processes. The same issues arise with assisted suicide yet removing the tensions created by those who currently cannot be helped reduces the progressive pressures on social groups in areas of valuing life. Rigidly holding one view or the other may make social tensions visible, which could be perceived to help social progress, but denying either view is problematic seems to remove all tensions. Avoidance appears to work but where should that paradox truly sit? [Foster, 2022 #20624]

    1. Last line correction “but denying either view is problematic seems to remove all tensions. ” should read “but denying either view is problematic, because it removes all tensions.”
      Sorry for that.

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