If it is not understood, it is simple

There is a truism that I cannot find a good quote of – but it is a truism all the same, and no doubt there is a quote somewhere. ‘If I don’t understand something it is simple; if I don’t know how to do something it is easy’. It is similar to ‘don’t underestimate what you don’t know’. And similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect: unskilled people think they have superior skill. It is a constant trap waiting to catch us out. It is also related to the ‘unknown unknown’.


In the mid 1950s automatic machine translation of natural languages was just a few years away and this remained the case, the system was just a few years away, for the next 30 or so years. 20 years further on there is still not a really, really good machine translation system. Why was this problem underestimated? It was not understood; natural language was not understood. What could be difficult? There are words, dictionaries, grammars, idioms - so we use them, like a person who just opens their mouths and meaningful utterances come out. People could not see the problems before they tried to do it.


Playing master level chess is considered difficult but moving chess pieces is easy – it takes no intelligence at all to reach out quickly, move a pawn, and hit the clock button. It is figuring out what to move that takes the intelligence. But computers could play good chess long before they could move the pieces without being too slow or knocking over other pieces. Playing chess is easier because we know how it is done but it seems harder for the same reason. Moving pieces is hard because we don’t know how it is done but it seems easier for the same reason.


This is part of our problem with consciousness. We have a ‘thought’ and we believe it was consciously produced. We are not just aware of this thought but ‘we had the thought consciously’ and it is a ‘conscious thought’. But the process that created that thought is not conscious. Did we hear any metaphorical gears or motors, see any metaphorical flashing lights, smell any metaphorical chemical reactions? No, the thought just happened, like a virgin birth. We are simply not able to examine the processes of thought. They are hidden, invisible and transparent to us. And so thought seems simple to understand, we just do it, easy-peasy. There are no conscious processes – there are processes that supply content to consciousness and processes that create the state of consciousness – but there are not processes within consciousness. No processes we are aware of. Our perception, cognition, emotion, action, volition, executive control, all those sorts of processes are not done in consciousness. We are just aware of the outcomes and sometimes important signposts or steps on the way to outcomes. In other words we have consciousness but not a conscious mind because ‘mind’ implies a type of process that we are not conscious of.


This does not mean, as some would have it, that consciousness is useless or that philosophical zombies are possible. No, consciousness is an integral part of how the brain functions. It has got to be because it is too expensive to be useless. Also our behavior is different without consciousness for any extended period of time. We need to figure out its role but that will be awkward if we keep thinking of consciousness as a mind. Mind implies a certain sort of whole person-ness. It implies processes that do not occur in consciousness. And unconscious processes, taken together, also do not add up to a mind – so no unconscious mind either. There is a mind and part of it, a smallish part, is consciousness. The single un-divided mind has a certain sort of whole person-ness.


When are we going to understand this mind? Do not count on it happening in a few years. Don’t hold your breath. The neuroscientists seem to be discovering new questions faster than new answers. Understanding is going to take a while. But in order to get to that understanding, it is time to stop being dualistic in every sense: mind-body, spiritual-material, mental-physical, conscious-unconscious.



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