Response to Nick Chater's claim that we lack unconscious thoughts (The Mind Is Flat)


EXCERPT: Nick Chater has put forward a bold claim in his recent book, The Mind Is Flat, as well as in an article and interview in Nautilus: that we don’t have any unconscious thoughts. A metaphor that Chater, a behavioral scientist, dislikes is that of the iceberg, the tip of which is our consciousness, and the vast, submerged part is our unconscious. As Chater says in the Nautilus interview, this suggests that unconscious and conscious processes use the same kinds of representations, and that the kinds of things we are unconscious of we could be conscious of.

He’s certainly right that many brain processes go on that we’re unaware of, and can’t be aware of. Let’s take visual recognition as an example. We can recognize that something is an image of an animal with astounding speed. We can even do this with cartoon animals. Chater says, “With each thought, you’re taking up massive fragments of information and trying to pull them together.” But we’re not aware of how these fragments work together to constitute dogness. So how does Chater say that all thought is conscious? By tailoring the definition of “thought” to suit his conclusion.

Mental health psychology uses the term for things like “unwanted thoughts,” and here is where Chater’s argument is strongest. But in cognitive psychology and cognitive science, “thought” isn’t really a technical term. We kind of know what it means, but in general, cognitive psychologists and cognitive scientists don’t use the term “thought” to represent any key concept in their theories and explanations. If Chater were to start using more technical terms, he’d find himself in much deeper water. He might even see more of the iceberg....

This would suggest there are little to no apparent obstacles in the transition between unconscious and conscious thought.

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