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"In the modern era, the idea of the unconscious begins with Sigmund Freud. Here is the important text."

Now this is just false. It is not well known, but nonetheless true, that Freud plagiarized many of his better ideas, and most especially those relating to the unconscious, from Schopenhauer. I know you have written on Schopenhauer before, so I wanted to let you know of this. Freud is an entirely overrated figure and Schopenhauer and underrated one, even among professional philosophers and psychologists today and not just the layman.

I would be curious also to know why you find determinism, which you mention in the last part of your post, to be dangerous. To me, and Einstein as well, it is quite comforting in a way: to know that one can expect certain things from our species and nature at large is a humbling, not a dangerous, notion.


Re: the idea that their behavior is largely out of their hands is unthinkable

That simple sentence explains the human condition as best as possible, IMHO.

Humans, and to a lesser degree some other animals, have a Consciousness that the bulk of other living things simply do not possess. These "non-conscious" living things go about their business on "auto-pilot".

For humans, the need to be in control is what drives us to make us special from all other living things. I don't think about my heartbeat and kidney functions, yet they go on 24/7 without my conscious direction.

Consciousness is the double-edged sword that has humans can not escape without great mental acknowledgements, such as we don't have much control over ourselves.

Dave Cohen


Well, I believe the key phrase is in the modern era..

I consider Schopenhauer to be pre-modern, barely, but still pre-modern. And my reading of Schopenhauer does not reveal a preoccupation with the idea of an unconscious mind. Freud took the idea much, much further.

But this argument is silly and off the main point. Also, I regard the Schopenhauer post as one of my best moments, a DOTE classic.


Regarding the alleged comforts of Determinism, I was referring to the dismal fact that humans may be fated to destroy most of the biosphere and themselves. The vast majority of people will not be comfortable with that thought, though a person of advanced consciousness will say what's the point of worrying about something I can do nothing to prevent? Carpe diem!

And importantly, Determinism precludes the idea of Progress, at least in some very important parts of the Human Condition.


-- Dave


Thanks for the gray matter workout - a stunning piece today.

The idea that there is a part of our brains/minds that we are unaware of, and that this unconscious governs a great many of our actions as bipeds, is bound to intrigue anyone who puzzles about epically damaging human behavior all over the world and has to date found no explanation that makes sense.

I am particularly interested in the concept that the unconscious may contain a function for species limitation - Nature's way of refreshing the soup of life. In other words, just as a spring bud is programmed to leaf in the summer, wither in the autumn and die off by the winter, perhaps we have this 'thing' deep within our brains to ensure that we first proliferate and then extinguish ourselves as part of and for the ultimate benefit of the natural order.

If this is the case, we are clearly ensconced in the latter part of this process.

As for attempting to falsify my theory, as per scientific rigor, I really have no idea how to go about this. All I can do is suggest this concept to possibly explain the hammer-and-tongs way we Homo sapiens are going about making the biosphere unsuitable for our continuance ... and then spend the rest of the day trying hard not to participate in the general ecocide, albeit to meager effect.


Benjamin Libet located brain activity several milliseconds before perception of conscious action in the 1970s and 1980s

"Libet finds that conscious volition is exercised in the form of 'the power of veto' (sometimes called "free won't"); the idea that conscious acquiescence is required to allow the unconscious buildup of the readiness potential to be actualized... While consciousness plays no part in the instigation of volitional acts."

Now it is up locatable up to 6 seconds deeper than Libet's findings.
BBC document: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-i3AiOS4nCE


I think we are living a half life, denying the unconscious. The conscious needs it's other half but denies it, the unconscious tries desperately to be heard-- we are at war within ourselves. So we lash out & destroy, to try taking the conflict out of our minds. A terrible, destructive cycle.



Thanks for the reply. I suppose it would depend on what we mean by the modern era. In philosophy, and the humanities generally I would say, the modern era begins during the Renaissance and in particular with Descartes, and ends with Kant, after which begins the Romantic or idealist period, in which Schopenhauer is somewhat of a rebel. Philosophy done in the 20th and 21st centuries is usually labeled contemporary, not modern, but I cede that the modern era is a highly elastic term and I'm coming at this through the lens of philosophical history.

I see now what you were getting at with the determinism bit; thanks for clarifying that.


Great, great post, Dave.

I'll just add this ("Now Homer, don't you eat this pie"):

Alexander Ač


This is not happening just in the United States; it is happening everywhere on Earth where humans live.

What about those Indian tribes living in Harmony with Nature before Europeans came to Americas? :-)


Helicopter Cheese

The key driver for the behavior of human beings, like all social primates, is status. Greed, aggression, violence, deception are almost always employed in the act of gaining or maintaining status.

This is because status is the key element of our identity. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, violence is always a search for identity. It is how a nobody attempts to become a somebody.

Take away somebody's status, and you threaten their identity. You take away all that is solid in their lives. If you have ever been demoted or fired you will know what I mean.

Whenever two human beings meet, they are always unconsciously picking up clues to the other person's status. This governs how the interaction will proceed.

Simply, humanity cannot address its problems because to do so would threaten the status of almost everyone in the world, especially those in the West.

Humans are status junkies, and this is why every political or environmental movement, no matter how well intentioned, sooner or later is deflected from its purpose by status-related feuding, or by status-granting blandishments from the status quo.

The only hope for humanity is for it to recognise its perilous addiction to status. Unfortunately, if any mainstream thinker were to recognise this, it is very unlikely that he would be given a big, shiny, status-conferring prize.

Eric Thurston

I've always been struck (stuck?) by the semantic difficulties in discussing consciousness and free will/determinism issues.

My own preference is to consider mind not as a duality of conscious/unconscious, but as a continuum from the physical self through all layers of what we refer to as the unconscious mind and up to what we refer to as the conscious mind. When "I" make a decision, this decision comes from this inclusive "I". Looking at it this way makes it impossible to regard our actions as being governed by an 'other' force of will that we call our unconscious.

The act of taking responsibility for one's actions implies taking responsibility for the 'directives' of the unconscious as well as the rationalized actions from our conscious. If we see 'ourselves' as conscious entities being directed by an 'other' (the unconscious), then taking responsibility for our actions becomes difficult if not impossible and we are left wallowing in rationalizations and typical human bullshit like religion.

I can sympathize with Einstein's finding this humbling. I find myself sometimes baffled by my own behaviour. Striving to learn the unconscious roots of ones self can be difficult and humbling. But I think humans would be better off in general if we acknowledged the unconscious part of ourselves and tried to be sensitive to how it works. We do, after all, have plenty of objective evidence of the effects of our unconscious to work with.


Incredible piece of work, Dave. This is why I always say men are not above the animals--we are driven by far more unconscious influences than we care to acknowledge. It takes considerable courage and humility to look in the mirror and face this truth. You won’t change a thing about human nature, but perhaps it is possible to recognize “you know that you don’t know.” Taking this stance helps make some sense of the chaos created by humans.

@Helicopter: Very insightful comment. Also germane to a prior article on what information goes viral. This could well be our epitaph: They came seeking status.


Was reading http://www.businessinsider.com/mauldin-cyprus-bang-moment-shock-2013-7 and came across a mention of Against the Gods: The remarkable story of Risk by Peter Bernstein.
Is optimism essential to human survival?

Dave Cohen

Re: Is optimism essential to human survival?

Apparently it has been, and will be right up to the point in the 21st century when optimism fails.

-- Dave

Mike Roberts

I'm wrestling with this, Dave, but I think this might be your most important post to date.

I was thinking that humans are destroying the biosphere because they don't actually realise that they are doing so. However, I've never been able to explain how one can point the destruction out explicitly and yet still be completely ignored, at least in terms of behavioural change ("yeah, you're right, Mike, now where did I leave that box of beer?"). The unconscious explains it. It also explains why you feel you're making no headway with this blog and why book after book describing our predicament (from Limits to Growth on) has failed to gain any traction.

But it also pisses me off. Why has my unconscious not taken over like it has with others? Life would be bliss, if it had.

This is awesome stuff. Are you sure you really want to finish up after this? In any case, I look forward to the next 10 days.


This stuff fascinates me as it gets to the root of the problem but I haven't read anywhere near the amount that I should have.

I remember taking a short evening-class in simple psychology about 15 years ago and the lecturer asked the class for their background and initial thoughts on the subject and the nature-nurture thing.

I answered that I had a background in biology and that I thought that our behaviour was more or less governed by our genes and that this would become clearer as more was discovered about genetics.
Needless to say that was the last time the lecturer spoke to me about that. :-)

I think this put me off returning to the subject and over the last few years I have become more zen about the whole thing. I have accepted that we will continue to do what we must and we will just have to see where that takes us. This blog has certainly helped to cement my thinking in that regard.

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