"Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?"

Consciousness, Unconsciousness and Identity

by Colin Bower  (Oct. 2006)


DH Lawrence was a great admirer of Melville’s masterpiece, Moby Dick, but he did admit that he had no idea what the tale was finally about (“Of course he [Moby Dick] is a symbol. Of what? I doubt if even Melville knew exactly”)*.  In the context of Lawrence’s candid uncertainty, lesser critics may be entitled to speculate that, amongst other things, it is about the obsessive behaviour of a man who doesn’t know who he is. Whether Ahab had the benefit of a mirror or not I do not know, but most of us today do, and when we look into our mirrors, peering at the face peering back at us, we may find ourselves asking the same question: “Oh I know very well that I am Jack (or Jill)… but who actually is Jack (or Jill)?” For those made vulnerable by the compulsion to lead an examined life, it can be an agonising question.


Descartes famously said: “I think, therefore I am”, which seeks to demonstrate existence, not identity, but which ought ostensibly to be a useful point of departure for an investigation into Ahab’s question, because one cannot have existence without something that exists. Descartes claims that it is “I” who exists – the very “I” that Ahab seeks to know.


But, in “I think therefore I am”, we encounter insurmountable difficulties immediately. As simple and as logical as it may seem, Descartes’ dictum is flawed and inadmissible, and offers no succour to the Ahabs of this world, and their anguished enquiry. It mysteriously identifies two autonomous and separate entities, the thoughts, on the one hand, and the thinker - the “I” - on the other, and embeds them in a single person.  If indeed I think and therefore exist, there is in the first place the “I”, that exists, and then there are the “thoughts”, that occur. Here is a fatal ambivalence: in what way is the thinking separable from the thinker? Must we imagine the unimaginable: that “I” am originating, managing or controlling my thinking? In what medium does this originating, managing or controlling take place? By what mechanism then does this originating, managing or controlling engage with the thoughts, and direct them? Where does it take place, in a separate part of the brain, in the heart, in the ether?


O there is thinking alright, of that there is no doubt, but if we claim - as Descartes seeks to do – that thinking presupposes a thinker, then – in order to agree with him - we have to say that thinking is the activity of an agent who is separate from the thought.  Who then is this agent, the “I” that lies behind the thoughts, and is the cause of those thoughts, but not the thoughts themselves? This of course is the very seat and ground of Ahab’s question. In the best post modernist way, it seems that a question of philosophy is really a question of grammar: “I think” we say. But is such an utterance intelligible? For who is the “I” that is not the thought?


The odd thing about our thoughts is that they appear to have an autonomous life: it is not “me” that is doing the thinking, my thinking is doing itself. Meme theory, first adumbrated by Richard Dawkins, suggests that our thoughts, at least in the early stage of their birth and development, arise mimetically, a process which has the benefit of conferring certain evolutionary advantages. If my parents or my parental figures are alive, they are to that extent successful, so it is an advantage for me to think like them. What I think, therefore, duplicates what they think, and this duplication happens independently of my will or of any conscious effort. My thoughts then are memes, which operate at the cultural level analogously to the operation of my genes at the biological level. If – as Dawkins colourfully said – the human being exists to allow genes to replicate themselves, then we might equally say that the human being exists to allow our thoughts to express themselves. In the hierarchy of being that Descartes unwittingly creates, the “I” is in control, and it originates and controls thought, but perhaps it is the other way around, perhaps the “I” is simply a creation of thought, perhaps even an illusion. It is our thoughts that create us, not we who create our thoughts


Julian Jaynes, now dead, wrote an influential book in 1978 that bore the intimidating title, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  Widely panned by the critics, it achieved mixed fortunes, but modest web research suggests some resurgence of interest in the book. Soon after its publication, it was described in Encounter magazine by a New Zealand academic, one DC Stove, as the most noteworthy book of the twentieth century (I quote from memory)*. In his book, Jaynes certainly did make an astonishing claim: sometime in the Stone Age past, people lived without benefit of consciousness. That’s right: they spoke to each other and lived social lives without even being aware that they were alive. Before you reject such a supposition as self-evidently preposterous, stop to consider the extent to which we can think and live without benefit of consciousness.


It is obvious that when we make certain kinds of judgement – spatial/temporal judgement, for instance - we do not do so “consciously”. When we elect to pull out of a parking bay into the traffic, we judge the many variables that inform our decision, and then, suddenly, we act. We are not aware of any mental computation that leads to the judgement, it merely happens.  I am currently drinking a cup of coffee; from time to-time my hands pick up the cup and press it to my lips. This happens independently of any conscious command, such as “arm, hand: prepare; time for another sip”. In such instances, decisions are made – often very important ones – and yet I am not in the least aware of how they are made. Jaynes offers the example of the concert pianist, who accomplishes an astonishing range of judgements closely co-ordinated with actions without any intercession of the conscious mind taking place.


Jaynes provides many examples of states of being within which thought is clearly taking place without the benefit of consciousness: in dreaming, for instance, in sleep walking, in various states of trance, and often in schizophrenia. These are unusual states of being, it is true, but the assumption that thinking and therefore living lies in the realm of consciousness is so deeply embedded that we need unusual examples as a means of prising it open.


I once had a radial keratotomy (an operation on the eye), which is undertaken under a local anaesthetic. Consciously I waited for the operation to begin until such time as I was aware of being wheeled out of the operating theatre. “Why aren’t you doing the operation?” I asked. “Oh but we have” was the answer. “Was I put to sleep?” was my surprised question. “Not at all, we were in a conversation with you throughout the operation”. Two things could explain the experience, which I found quite alarming. (1) Either I was unconscious (or not aware that I was conscious, which I take to be the same thing), and conducted myself as an articulate, sentient being without benefit of consciousness, in exactly the way that Jaynes hypothesises was the case with ancient people, or (2) I had been in a perfectly normal state of consciousness, but, under the influence of one or another drug, I had “forgotten” having had the experience.


If the latter explanation is the true one, it would not serve to help the case I am seeking to make, but it does instead open a number of other puzzling questions that challenge conventional understanding of the role of consciousness in shaping identity. If we are able to forget things as profoundly and as utterly as this, does it matter that the events which we have forgotten ever occurred in the first place? Had the eye surgeon taken an oxy-acetylene torch to me eyeball instead of a scalpel, why would it have mattered to me - barring the outcome, of course - if I were able to forget the experience in its entirety?  But this is matter for a separate speculative enquiry, and I would prefer not to digress. Somewhat conveniently, I am going with the first explanation: that I behaved as a sentient, articulate human being without being conscious. Apparently our brain works splendidly without the benefit of consciousness. How often do we go to bed with a problem, and awake with a solution?


We unwittingly acknowledge the independent and autonomous origin of thought and judgement when we say something like, “I’m conflicted on this issue”, for who are the two separate participants to the conflict? Is the “I”, in this case, an independent adjudicator of two opposing arguments? Where do those arguments come from? When you do something “against your better judgement”, whose judgement was it that you ignored?


My own favourite example of the way in which the brain seems to work independently is this: I commence upon a sentence, spoken or written, that is going to give expression to a complex thought, and in embarking upon my sentence, I have no precise idea what words or what punctuation I will use, nor indeed do I know exactly what I will end up saying, but my sentence completes itself perfectly, hopefully with grammar intact, and finally I place my full stop or I stop speaking,  having articulated a thought that in fact seems to have uttered itself. There, I have just done it. Certainly I did not formulate it before expressing it. I am more aware of having been the messenger delivering the thought than its author. The fact is: are we ever aware of how we solve a problem, make a judgement or reach a decision? In popular idiom, we acknowledge the autonomy of the brain in problem-solving when we use a phrase such as: “Hmm, I’ll sleep on it”. Or we might say: “I’ll mull it over”, and although we are aware of the existence of the problem lurking somewhere in our conscious mind, I think we would all agree that a solution, when one appears, is not one we will have arrived at analogously to the way we might work our way through a mathematical proof. Very often we seem to have the sense of really having thought something out, but I wonder if this is not a sense created by memory, our articulated thought (the solution) appearing to our consciousness or in our consciousness, only after our brains have done the work for us.


If we don’t subscribe to the challenging view of thinking and consciousness that Jaynes propounds, we easily fall into an ontological tautology. Here, for instance, is a report carried by the science magazine Discovery:

Social psychologist David Dunning of Cornell University recently devised experiments to test whether wishful thinking can affect our seeing. “It's well established from evidence in everyday life and the laboratory that people think what they want to think," he says. "We're taking this a step beyond. We're asking if desires and fears can influence literally what people physically see.” This process of altered perceptions occurs unconsciously, Dunning says. “What this research suggests is that the brain is doing a lot of work between the eye and the conscious awareness to influence our thinking, to influence our thoughts even before anything reaches awareness,” he says. “Before we even see the world, our brain has interpreted that world in such a way that it lines up with what we want to see and avoids what we don't want to see.”* 

This is puzzling. Dunning endorses the view that the brain has an independent life of its own, but he takes up a remarkably unproblematised position in respect of what this must then entail. What does it mean: “…people think what they want to think”? We must repeat the questions:  In what medium does the “wanting” take place? By what mechanism does it engage with the thoughts, and direct them?  By way of answer, we may well say something like: “it is our emotions telling us what to think”, which seems to make sense, but “seems” is the operative word, for it doesn’t.  Who or what is the “I” that is prey to emotional control, and in what way do those emotions take control of the thoughts in order to beat the ostensible purpose of the “I”? I fact, if the “I” is neither the emotions nor the thoughts, what is it?


What can we mean when we say something like: “we fool ourselves”, which paraphrases Dunning’s claim? We seem to be saying by this, that our thoughts are going to take place, willy-nilly, and “we” set out to influence them. Why would we feel our thoughts are so out of control that we can expressly think what we don’t want to think? And if we are saying this, then we return to the question so agonisingly articulated by Ahab: I know I am me, but who is me?


We can come at this question from another perspective entirely. Many people claim that knowledge creation (call it “thinking” if you like) is heuristic, which is to say that it is created in the act of creation. This I think is why the noted literary critic FR Leavis so often insisted that human  creativity at full stretch is - to use a phrase of his that is on the face of it difficult to understand - “exploratory”. Creative writers in the arduous act of trying to express something that is in the present unknown to themselves, and inexpressible, “discover” the thought that is pregnant within them in the act of trying to express it. Leavis pushed the boundaries of this theory of knowledge late in his life with his articulation of the notion, ahnung, the German word meaning something like the English “hint” - “something like”, because clearly Leavis would have simply used the word “hint” had it suited his purpose.  He also described it as “anticipatory apprehension”. Thinkers and writers are therefore drawn towards an articulation by the strenuous act of striving to say something they are not themselves sure of, and being drawn to a new conclusion, as it were by the ahnung. But where does the ahnung come from? In Leavis’s case, the answer is never explicitly given, but there is evidence enough in his critical judgements to suggest that it was from some spiritual source outside of ourselves. Where things come from – “things” like a new thought - is a question that science cannot answer, and if we say it comes from the unconscious, or it comes from a spiritual source outside of ourselves, we are merely using a metaphor to say we do not know where it comes from: it is a mystery. Such an admission is far better than attempting to claim that we do know when we don’t.  But the point is that Leavis’s theory of knowledge creation comes strongly to the aid of the insight that our thoughts think themselves, or to put it another way, that “we” are actually the messengers of our thoughts, rather than their creators.


I can imagine Leavis taking issue with such a way of putting things, for it implies no effort on the part of the thinker, who merely “allows” his or her inner voices to be heard. There is of course a clear relationship between the strenuous effort made to think and to create, and the link this effort appears to establish with our subterranean sources of knowledge. Again I must weakly say, this is matter for yet another effort of investigation.


This notion of knowledge creation or thinking is neither new nor novel. This is the writer on philosophy Marjorie Grene:


Knowing is essentially temporal activity, directed temporal activity, drawn by the future pull of what we wish to understand. Knowing, I have argued earlier, is essentially learning: and learning is a telic phenomenon, in which the end in sight, even only guessed at, draws us toward a solution.*


In many places in Four Quartets, TS Eliot suggests a similar intimation of knowledge heard in the conscious mind: “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood…”


So far so bad; it may well be that I have created a morass which will drag poor Ahab down to even deeper levels of confusion. But wait. Let us try to tie the argument up by going back to Jaynes (And what is the argument? At this stage I am not sure, but something like this: we mistake our consciousness for thought, and we allow it to generate an “I” that is illusory). As we have seen, he has offered the fascinating postulate that ancient peoples lived without benefit of consciousness. But they still thought. Jaynes suggests that they “heard” their thoughts as instructions from the gods. Preposterous? Hardly. Let me jump ahead in regards to Jaynes’s argument. Did the word “I” exist in ancient languages? Let us assume for the moment that it did not. Perhaps people referred to themselves by name, in the third person as it were. Without what Jaynes calls the “analogue I”, they would have had no means of recognising that they existed, or, more pertinently, that the “voices” they heard in their heads (in other words, their thoughts) were in fact their own. But they did strongly believe in the existence of the gods. Why should it be surprising then to assume that they took their own thoughts actually to be the voice of the gods, communicating with them across a broad range of subjects, perhaps, but most importantly, giving them instruction? And we today: do we have any strong proof that our thoughts are our own? Molecular biology tells us that thought is located in the brain. Fair enough. But is there any scientific theory that can explain why neural activity should create thought?


Needless to say, Jaynes explains his hypothesis, with evidence, in a full length book, and I can hardly provide all the evidence in support of the suggestions being developed here. As language became more sophisticated and more expressive, and as its metaphorical qualities were developed, an opportunity arose for self-awareness to grow. Language, bit-by-bit created a world of the mind, for which a sense of individual ownership concomitantly grew. Eventually it transpired that human beings came to attribute their thoughts to the newly acquired sense of consciousness. From this we can extrapolate the modern human being who assumes he or she exists in his or her thoughts, and who – perhaps mistakenly – assumes that thought and the conscious mind are integrated entities.


For Jaynes, consciousness is something like a theatre in which we see and hear the evidence of our unfolding existence.  In this sense, it might also be understood as memory of events that have already taken place, even if infinitesimally previously in time:  the thought we are aware of in our consciousness is the thought that has already taken place. Following Jaynes, we have created our consciousness, and it is this consciousness which we take to be ourselves. And of course this creates the problem with which Ahab and many of the rest of us wrestle. Our consciousness creates the “I” we all believe to be our identity.


What difference does this all make to our lives? Supposing, just for a moment – as unlikely as it may seem – that thinking and therefore living take place outside of consciousness – what is the consequence? And if there is no consequence, why should anyone care? Well, yes, from a certain perspective, it does seem to be a marginal issue. But not, presumably, if we are locked in a lifetime’s endeavour to see truth and to know ourselves.


We don’t have to abandon our positions as secular humanists (for instance), or our allegiance to rational argument and the primacy of evidence in order to concede that – if our thinking takes place independently of our wills and of our conscious control - it has its origin in a mystery that we will never understand. This is neither a startling nor an illogical conclusion to draw if we are persuaded that thinking somehow has a life of its own, and an origin which we cannot readily identify. Some might call this origin god. This is their business – for as long, at least, as their god doesn’t assume an unwanted role in the lives of others. Recognition of such a mystery might encourage us to take our assumed identities a little less seriously. It might protect us against the scientific hubris that takes seriously the goal of achieving a grand unified theory of everything. Philosophically it might facilitate our concurrence with the view expressed by RG Collingwood:


This at any rate seems clear; that since modern science is committed to a view of the physical universe as finite, certainly in space and probably in time, the activity which this same science identifies with matter cannot be a self-created or ultimately self-dependent activity. The world of nature or physical world as a whole, on any such view, must ultimately depend for its existence on something other than itself.*


The mysticism expressed by Lawrence’s disavowal of the ego, “not I, but the wind that blows through me” does not threaten the material world, it merely balances it. We cannot know who we are because we do not own ourselves, nor for the same reason can we take credit, as it were, for being who or what we are. Ahab’s was a tortured soul, and its torture was expressed in an unanswerable question. Wisdom lies in knowing that it is unanswerable, and it is this wisdom which finds expression in the thoughts of Lawrence’s character, Tom Brangwen, who, in The Rainbow, is described in the following way:


But during the long February nights with the ewes in labour, looking out from the shelter into the flashing stars, he knew he did not belong to himself. He must admit that he was only fragmentary, something incomplete and subject. There were the stars in the dark heaven travelling, the whole host passing by on some eternal voyage. So he sat small and submissive to the great ordering.


For many, my argument may be unpersuasive, but even the sceptics would have to admit that the question it faces up to is at one and the same time both urgent and timeless. Why else would so great a writer as Melville have created so complex a character as Ahab brought so tragically to a state of demonic and destructive fury by his inability to answer it? Jim Holt, in an erudite essay on the subject of String Theory in The New Yorker online edition (“Unstrung”, 2006-02-10), acknowledges that the question of consciousness, and the human identity that it appears to create is, for human enquiry, the fundamental one. “Even if a final theory [a grand unified theory of everything] is found” he writes, “it will leave the question about nature that most concerns us – how the brain gives rise to consciousness...”


We must struggle to articulate ourselves, we must strive for truth, but who or what the “we” might be that is engaged with this struggle is a mystery. Following Lawrence, we may want to give the credit for our creative ability to think to the wind that blows through us.



* Lawrence DH Studies in Classic American Literature

* The Oracles and their Cessation: A Tribute to Julian Jaynes  Encounter 73 (April 1989): 31

* http://www.discover.com/web-exclusives/wishfulseeing/

* Grene M The Knower and the Known

* Collingwood  RG  The Idea of Nature

Both of the above found in Leavis FR The Living Principle


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