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The more psychology, neuroscience and the like that I read, the more it seems clear to me that the mind is (at least) a two-sided thing. All the theories that seem to jibe with observed reality seem to share the common feature that you have one element of the mind that acts entirely on its own and is, for the most part, the thing that drives our behavior. And, again, in common, virtually all of the theories seem to suggest that this process is beyond our control, that it is unconscious or instinctive. The other part of the mind is basically only engaged for certain functions, after the unconscious part of the mind has already set the context. Thus, the "conscious" part of the mind is like a computer program running in a virtual environment. It perceives the environment it is presented with as "real" and does what it has to do in that context. The conscious mind allows us to "solve" certain kinds of problems through communication or cleverness or computation, etc. But only those problems passed on to the conscious mind by the unconscious mind are really ever examined.

I have seen some evidence that it is possible to force oneself to engage the conscious mind on a problem that would otherwise be handled by the unconscious mind, but the evidence seems to indicate that this is a process requiring such mental effort that the mind resists doing this. It is not natural and, therefore, not an activity that can exist at scale in day to day living.

In short, whatever they may be called, it certainly seems that the mind is a multi-part (at least 2) entity, and that the part we call "consciousness" is actually a rather minor player in the overall picture.

Paul Reid-Bowen

There are certainly some philosophers/theorists who would support your position, although they don’t represent the mainstream in philosophy of mind. The key issue is that most philosophers conceptualise consciousness as functional, which cuts to the heart of the questions that you are asking here (i.e. what’s it good for, what does it do?), whereas – as you imply – consciousness might be dysfunctional, not particularly useful, or minimally some kind of epiphenomenon.

Following this line of thought, you might want to have a look at some of the philosopher Steven Shaviro’s work. He has an especially interesting blog post where he uses some recent science fiction writings as a springboard into reflecting on the nature of consciousness, which he notes towards the end of the piece, may be best thought of as dysfunctional, ‘spam-like’ and, evolutionarily speaking, a rather costly luxury item. See http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1233

Shaviro develops these ideas more extensively in his very recent book, Discognition, which I suspect you might find quite agreeable.

Another philosopher/thinker and also science fiction writer whose theories are very similar to your Flatland thesis is R. Scott Baker and his Blind Brain Theory. He too elaborates extensively on the nature of cognitive biases, to the point at which he completely overturns most accepted accounts of consciousness and human intentionality. He blogs at the Three Pound Brain, https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/ but you can find a very developed and detailed account of his position here

A piece of his SciFi/Horror writing, that heavily draws on his philosophy of mind, is Neuropath.

Mitchell Diamond

Yes, consciousness is misleading, and consciousness is a trickster, which makes it all the more difficult to unpack it. When you say, consciousness allows us to hold things in the mind, how do we know that is truly an indication of consciousness? When my dog finds something edible on a walk, he will hold that location in his memory for days as he will pull towards it on successive days' walks. Storing memories is common to 1000s of species, whether short-term or long-term memory.

Much of what we believe is a function of consciousness is really not, but is reported to us (our consciousness) as consciousness. This begets a circular paradox where it becomes (almost?) impossible to parse out the differences between conscious and unconscious, at least through philosophical introspection. It will take serious neuroscience to identify features of consciousness. So far I haven't seen anything convincing.


Exactly, the tail wagging the dog.


you said a mouthful.

Mike Cooper

@Mitchell are you saying you don't think a dog is conscious?

I'd say consciousness is probably a necessary pre-condition for language. They might even be 2 aspects of the same phenomenon.

Also, it's definitely possible to feel oneself 'thinking' something in internal language, while knowing that that thought has already popped non-verbally into your consciousness from 'somewhere' in the unconscious mind and your conscious mind is simply telling itself what the unconscious wants to do. So it's quite possible that this is how all thoughts occur, and consciousness / thinking truly is only the post-hoc rationalising and verbalising of all the unconscious thoughts and feelings that occur in the instinctive part of the brain.

So maybe the process of codifying non-verbal thoughts allows us to store more of them and then add them together to form more complex concepts, but because it occurs after the unconscious has already formed the 'thought', it has little influence in changing the actual thought process. Hence Flatland behaviour?

Mike Roberts

Well, it is humans who have invented the term. But how can we ever know that the thing to which we've given a name really exists? I suppose it must exist, in some way, since we gave it a name, but is it just a vague notion? It allows us to think humans are special but why would other creatures not have it? In trying to understand (or hypothesise) it, though, we may be chasing after the unattainable. I'm with Witten on this; I don't think we'll ever figure it out.

Absolutely spot-on, though, Dave - it hasn't allowed us to answer all of the big questions or make inroads into all the big problems. Perhaps that is the proof that it doesn't really exist in a physical, meaningful, way.

Mike H

Dave, I am not sure that consciousness can be so easily dismissed. I was listening to a program the other day on a local radio station (ABC) the guest was Professor Peter Doherty (Nobel Prize winner for his work in discovering T-cells immune systems etc). He caught my attention when he raised a very important point about being conscious or the human mind, it was an off the cuff remark but what he said made me sit up and listen carefully.

To paraphrase - 'humans are unique because they unlike any other animal species are aware of their own demise or death, that is their mind or consciousness is able to understand that they die and no other animal or species studied by science has this capacity, other species may be cognisant of suffering or imminent death of another of the species but not their own. The critical point about this awareness by the human mind is that it has a twin or mirror response - DENIAL and the two coexist. (The discussion had been about climate change and why humans fail to act in the face of the threat or even imminent death or their demise). I have not heard this discussed in these terms or with this lucidity before and the Denial Response is critical to why flatland thinking to my mind seems to predominate, it seemed to me a key to a whole lot of issues and problems. When faced with the certainty of something very unpleasant happening, many many people simply respond with DENIAL, it is a very very effective mechanism for shutting down any cognisant thought about any problem or issue and we are hard wired or chemically constructed by our adaption as a species. I guess if you did not have this characteristic you would be mentally paralysed or incapable of responding to any threat or would appear stupid or moronic, ironically DENIAL seems to me to produce exactly this outcome.

I have also been revisiting the issue of consciousness and the development of AI. As you will appreciate AI has an almost cult like belief in its possibility which was thoroughly debunked some two decades by one of the worlds great mathematicians, Prof Roger Penrose (The Emperors New Mind). I read Penrose's book many years ago, it is one of those books that every one talks about but nobody has actually read because you need a major in math to get a grasp of the mathematics and the text is by necessity, dense. Penrose proved that AI is impossible and had the algebra to prove it. Several key points why, pattern recognition (random and complex), the limit of algorithms and consciousness. Penrose simply called this the ah-hah moment which is a unique human feature and cannot be; formulated, discerned via scientific tests nor replicated mathematically or mechanically, end of story! Penrose has been attacked and a lot disagree with him but his theorems have not been disproved.

Put these two concepts together and you have I think the biological key to Flatland thinking.

Jacob Horner

Aha..Mortal Terror

This past June, John Horgan posted an interview with Sheldon Solomon and I seemed to be conscious of being fascinated:


I proceeded to pursue Sheldon and quickly found this gem:


I'll also add this bit which appeared in my awareness upon reading Dave's post yesterday:




Dave, excellent article.

I'll be thinking over this for quite a while. My favorite topic, too; I've spent my whole adult life (admittedly, not yet the longest) thinking about this problem. I did my senior thesis on it, but I was clueless and stuck in Flatland until I developed a rare disorder in which my immune system started attacking my brain. (Please forgive me if my comments are not the best, the disease has, frustratingly, left my intellect intact but destroyed my memory and caused mild impairments to my communication skills).

@Brian the easiest way to engage the conscious brain in normally unconscious tasks is to contract an illness that affects the unconscious functions of the brain! (Not that I recommend it or anything). Once normally automatic mechanisms began to malfunction, these functions started to come to my conscious awareness as I was forced to recognize their existence and attempt consciously to compensate for them. It's hard for any intelligent person to remain ignorant about the underlying workings of their physical brain when they're no longer working the same way as everyone else's.

But the clearest lesson I've learned from this disease is that the brain is not a container for a ghost called "mind."

@Mike Roberts I'd argue that it is not "consciousness," but "mind" itself which may not refer to anything real. It's quite a misleading term, suggesting that there is some supernatural presence other than the brain which thinks our thoughts. It is clearly a physical object, subject to the limitations of all matter. You'd think that would be a no-brainer, but...Flatland and all...

I agree with some of the above posters: the problem of consciousness can't be easily dismissed, it's quite complicated and I'm not sure it is necessary to have consciousness in order to direct our focus, but I do believe you've hit the bulls eye by calling it a trickster and you're certainly right that it's the tail that wags the dog.

RS Bakker, as @Paul mentioned above, calls consciousness "the last magic trick." I agree you'd like his take on it. He defines consciousness by what it lacks. One of the best takes that I've found on the "mind-body" problem. Warning: he's fallen victim to an especially Flatlandy brand of techno-optimism.

I'll also second @Jacob, I've found Sheldon Solomon's work on the denial of death and terror management theory extremely thought-provoking: maybe consciousness has contributed something to our unconscious motivations, but not in the way we might think. Consciousness has enabled awareness of our own mortality, which leads to a life spent unconsciously evading it.

Solomon's mentor was Ernest Becker, whose book The Denial of Death is excellent foundational reading.

While I'm on that topic, by my estimate, there are two primary cognitive problems facing humankind today: first, the recognition of our external limitations--our habitat on Planet Earth-- and second, the recognition of our internal limitations: our brains. I judge all thinkers by how well they've been able to recognize, evaluate and come to terms with both of these limitations.

Because of the factors you've identified in your Flatland theory, it's quite rare to find a thinker who has successfully grappled with either one of these limitations, but it is exceptionally rare to find one who has come to terms with the finitude of both our internal and external environments.

Your blog stands out for many reasons, but this one, at least cognitively, is the most striking.

Matt Bennett


What a wonderful comment. You summarise nicely how I feel about Dave's groundbreaking blog in those last few paragraphs - the reason I haven't missed a single post of his in literally years. I'm over in Australia (with Mike H!) and am always interpreting the insane unfolding of events before me with a Flatland filter. I personally think the gist of what he is trying to put out there will be highly valued for its razor-sharp insight, if there is anyone to see it in hindsight....


Apologies if this is elementary, but I have never understood this.

If all matter has mass and dimension, and all mind is matter, what is the mass and dimension of a concept? If concepts have no mass or dimension, do they only exist in time and not in space? How is that possible?


Per Spengler, a "civilization" (as opposed to a "culture") can't assimilate fundamentally new ideas. Anything that ranges too far outside existing patterns of thinking is ipso facto pathological.

Quantum theory probably couldn't have been developed in the present climate, and whatever radically different viewpoint is required to explain the mind-body problem certainly won't be. The Establishment is going ape-s*** just trying to cope with the free will/determinism problem, something the Enlightenment had little trouble grappling with.

Jacob Bronowski closed The Ascent of Man with a warning that the West might founder and crash on the shoals of this issue, and it's looking more and more like he was right.


Hi Dave, this essay was was posted to reddit r/collapse and i posted the url to the Doomstead Diner Forum. I have been living in a small Buddhist monastery in the mid-west for 30 years. I have been coming to realize that this sleep walking human who is unaware of their own behavior and inner dialogue is the biggest problem we face right now. This sleep walking has brought the domination/destruction of humans and our planet. In the monastery the first thing we learn how to do is "still the mind". If people could do this at will, they would not project their animal behavior that is accompanied by cognitive reasoning. With the mind being "empty" we are able to experience the world as it actually is, instead of interpreting it through our bicameral mind and acting with our ego. I do not think humans will develop this ability for hundreds of years which might be to late to avoid our own extinction. Maybe after a great culling of human beings we will learn that we are projecting our conditioned beliefs and egos onto everything we encounter, maybe not. Humans need to Awake to their own footprints, and stop living like robots. Please keep up your pursuit of truth even though you might not see any results of awakening in humanity. We seem to have evolved into this state of human reaction for survival. Now we have overpopulation, war, great inequality, and the rapid deterioration of our living earth. Please visit our blog at https://openmind693.wordpress.com/ to see what we are doing to stay awake.


@Matt thanks, it's good to know I still have a few brain cells left. Australia! We should have local meetup groups for DOTE readers :) I'm in the Boston area.

@Nathaniel Apologies, my communication impairment can be frustrating at times. I meant the "it" in "It is clearly a physical object..." to refer to the brain, not the mind. I believe the "mind" may not refer to anything real, hence the confusion that always accompanies its discussion.

John Wheeler

I apologize if you've addressed this before, but I'm curious, what do you think of Julian Jaynes's hypothesis in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind that consciousness is a relatively recent phenomenon, starting around 1800 BC?


A late comment, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading the post and all the comments. And, thanks for the links. They should provide lots of good reading material this winter. I have a lot of catching up to do on this fascinating topic.

steve c

Have not read it yet, but came across reviews of this book, and thought it relevant to the question of human consciousness, and what the hell that even means.


I'd say we might be overthinking it a bit, or at least being too human centric in our evaluations. The fact that we are a successful species ( too successful, as it turns out) speaks to the usefulness of "consciousness", or at least our ability to generationally transmit learning, make tools, and work as coordinated groups.

I agree that our limited self awareness and cognitive filtering are turning out to be drawbacks for solving large societal disfunctions , but seem to be a package deal, just wonder if it had to be that way.


Ditto on the thanks for the post and everyone's comments. This is a subject that is quite deep and controversial. I don't have the footing to declare a stand on it, but this will help.

I will say this, though, to stevec's comment - my general impression on human intelligence (and all the attendant details like consciousness) is that it's just another tool evolution created in the species race. Our actions collectively, and even our goals collectively, are no different than any other species - to thrive. Our 'intelligence' is used in that way, to allow us to thrive, conquer, and expand. Limited self awareness and cognitive filtering are both features which would benefit that prime directive.

We are incredibly successful as a species, and yes, too successful, as we have expanded to fill every corner and crevice on the planet but lack the tools and instincts to behave primarily for the long term instead of the short term.

Did it have to be this way? Evolution works to reward the short term over the long term, so I'd say the odds were exceptionally high that it did have to be this way.

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