Unconscious illusions

Buddhist texts frequently stress the liberating power of prajñā or paññā, metaphysical insight. It is one of the three major components of the path in early texts, one of the six perfections in Mahāyāna. To know the truth about existence – its nature as impermanent, essenceless, unsatisfactory – is to liberate one’s mind and be unattached. In the Pali Vinaya, the Buddha’s first disciples Sāriputta and Moggallāna attain liberation from suffering as soon as they hear the Dhamma Eye: the phrase “Whatever can arise, can also cease.” Śāntideva at Śikṣā Samuccaya 264 says na śūnyatāvādī lokadharmaiḥ saṃhriyate: one who takes the position of emptiness will not be attached to worldly phenomena.

But something seems odd about these claims – perhaps especially to a beginning student of Buddhist philosophy. We might well acknowledge the tradition’s supposed truths as truths – and yet still be just as mired in suffering as we were before. I know I didn’t get liberated upon hearing that what can arise can cease, and you probably didn’t either. David Burton in his Buddhism, Knowledge and Liberation puts the problem well:

I do not seem to be ignorant about the impermanence of entities. I appear to understand that entities have no fixed essence and that they often change in disagreeable ways. I seem to understand that what I possess will fall out of my possession. I apparently accept that all entities must pass away. And I seem to acknowledge that my craving causes suffering. Yet I am certainly not free from craving and attachment. (Burton 31)

So what’s going on here? How is it that one can sincerely state that things are empty, sincerely hold that claim in one’s mind, and yet still feel attachment to those things?

In attempting to answer such questions I have found it extraordinarily helpful to think in terms of the powerful psychological theory put together by Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky, and expounded in Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman provides both experimental evidence – much of which has been successfully replicated, in a way far too rare in contemporary psychology – and intuitive examples like illusions, to demonstrate how much of our thought happens automatically, in ways we are not aware of.


This is not merely a sub-verbal phenomenon, either: it is involved in linguistic and even mathematical activities. If I ask you “2 + 2 = ?” or “What is the capital of France?” you are not able to prevent your mind from supplying an answer; it just comes. And Kahneman shows how a great deal of this unconscious mental activity is erroneous: we think automatically in ways that are demonstrably wrong. An example is the famous Müller-Lyer illusion: if you measure the two lines in this picture you will see that they are the same length, but your mind will still perceive the bottom one as longer.

Kahneman’s work is at some level an exploration of what Freud would have called the unconscious mind, the portion of our mental functioning that we do not control or even perceive. Later research has shown Freud unquestionably right about the basic fact that there is an unconscious mind; what he got wrong was the reasons it exists. I recall one contemporary psychologist putting it beautifully: “The unconscious is unconscious not because it’s repressed, but because it’s not conscious.” To think that repression is what makes thought unconscious, is already to give too much privilege and priority to the conscious mind. The unconscious comes first; we always already have it and are in it. Conscious thought is a very small part of our mental lives. One might well say the bigger puzzle for psychology is not why there is unconscious thought, but why there is conscious thought.

The classical Buddhists did not do Kahneman’s experiments; they had not even seen the Müller-Lyer illusion. But they deeply understood the importance of unconscious thought. When you measure the Müller-Lyer lines, do you believe that they are of equal length? Yes, and no. At the level of your conscious attentive mind you can reason to a belief that the lines are equal; but you still see them as different. It is this “seeing as” that a great deal of Buddhist thought is concerned with. It are why the Buddhist path is not merely a matter of reasoning, but of other practices – including restrained conduct (sīla) as well as meditation. You must train your unconscious mind to deeply recognize what your conscious mind fleetingly affirms. The only reason Sāriputta and Moggallāna could get liberated on hearing the Dhamma Eye is that they had already been on a long path of monastic self-cultivation that prepared them to understand it properly.

The perspective I am attributing here to classical Buddhists – and to Kahneman – is one that I have elsewhere referred to, following Aaron Stalnaker, as chastened intellectualism. But I am wondering at this point whether it even needs an “ism”. Given the number of ways that humans undermine themselves, this point begins to seem like it should be obvious. Aristotle understood it well enough in his theory of akrasia. What may really require investigation is why some Western thinkers, like Descartes and perhaps Plato, ever thought that human thought would be easily transparent to itself in the first place. Burton’s problem may come because we are still too beholden to their mistaken theories of belief.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

10 Replies to “Unconscious illusions”

  1. Thanks, Amod. This is great stuff. Many years ago, I published a paper in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics arguing that something like what you’re saying is why the Buddhist tradition kept the kind of meditation called tranquility (samatha) meditation and not just insight (vipassana). http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2010/04/27/cultivation-of-moral-concern-in-theravada-buddhism-toward-a-theory-of-the-relation-between-tranquility-and-insight/

    More recently (and more controversially), I think this may also be part of why the idea of Buddhist skepticism is not entirely crazy: a surface level intellectual apprehension of the truth is not enough, and in some contexts, may actually add to one’s suffering. I might be willing to concede that the types of skepticism I see in some parts of early Buddhism and Nāgārjuna aren’t the whole path, but they are, I think, beneficial therapies for certain types of people who are prone to being too attached to their truth claims even if those claims are actually true.

    Or maybe I’m missing the point?

    • I’ve actually been thinking about the idea of skepticism as therapy in the Greek context. I think it was pretty clear that Sextus understood it that way: when you have the epochē that treats different ideas with equanimity, you won’t get too attached to either one. I think that’s a valuable lesson in the current era, where outrage about one idea or another fills my Facebook feed – and for that matter the news – daily. I think that’s probably a helpful way to view Madhyamaka – the more I try to grapple with Buddhist views as actual candidates for truth, the harder it is for me to accept Madhyamaka and its prima facie absurd claims to have no position.

  2. Thank you, Amod. Very stimulating tips! I’d suggest a parallel reading with a new book from a neuroscientist, Beau Lotto, Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently, 2017. Philosophers have been trying to understand if what we actually “see” corresponde to what is “out there” for centuries. Since Plato on there always has been a doubt:is the thing in itself, the objective esixtence, independent from our sight, true? Or is it an illusion? From the neurosciences’ point of view, it’s an illusion, in the sense that we do not see the things as they are. But the most interesting point in the book is that it questions us about the “value” of seeing things as they are. Our brain didn’t evolve in order to see the reality, but in order to be performative on other tasks. Only 10% of our neuro-connections regards vision/seeing. The other 90% of it is mostly made up of a huge and highly sophisticated inner network, which continuously works in order to make/give sense to the informations coming from outside. “Giving a meaning” seems to be and to have been the first and most important goal from the point of view of the species’ evolution: because it means building up a model of the world that it’s necessary to survive in the surrounding environment. In short terms, it seems that we are active part in building up a world that seems to us “real” because this is “useful” for the survival of the species. So, it’s a world that has a certain connection with reality, but it’s not reality. I see this as a challenging prospective once put it in parallel with the buddhist epistemological approach. Is “not seeing things as they are” worthy of “good/bad” judgement? Or should we approach the issue from double prospectives, using other categories, as “usefull/useless”, or different points of observations, as “species” and “individuals”? Feedbacks most welcome!

    • I think the classical Buddhist texts are pretty clear that it’s a good thing to see things as they are (yathābhūtadassana) – though there are clearly pragmatic considerations to that as well, since seeing things as they are is itself considered liberating.

      There are a lot of debates to be had about the relative importance of correct/true seeing vs. pragmatic efficacy, for sure. What I definitely don’t accept is any account that says our brain evolved to be performative and therefore we should focus on performative/pragmatic efficacy rather than truth or accuracy. Evolution is not and should not be normative; it has given us a lot of drives to anger, jealousy, pettiness as well as factual wrongness. The human struggle to live well, individually and collectively, is in many ways a struggle to rise above what evolution has given us. (More thoughts on the point in an old post of mine.)

  3. Amod,

    The fact that one may do many things “unthinkingly,” or without full awareness, or out of mental habit, as with cognitive heuristics (perhaps because dispositionally), and so forth, in other words, the kind of mental phenomena invoked or referred to in cognitive science generally and cognitive psychology in particular, does not, I suspect, mean that we need refer to “the unconscious,” or an unconscious mind. I think it can be better or more plausibly explained by the notion of what is sub-conscious, that is, that which occurs just below the threshold of consciousness, if only because we can readily learn about such “mistakes” or habits of thought, illusions, and so forth. It’s an undeniable fact that we take in all sorts of information while deliberately attending to something (as in the back of our minds as it were, or just beyond the centers of our attention or awareness, or as part of what one remembers or is capable of recalling), but it is also the case that with a shift in attention or transitive consciousness, we can become aware of something with comparatively little effort (i.e., in comparison to bringing into full lucidity that which is repressed, or coming to know our wishes and fantasies or irrational non-rational motives and drives and complexes that Freud attributed to the unconscious mind). Consider, for example, the oft-cited difference between “knowing how” and “knowing that:” the former is often that sort of knowledge and skill that is just below the threshold of full awareness or attention (to be sure, knowing how to do something does not necessarily imply being able to do it or having the ability to do it) and often, although not invariably, can to some extent be captured in propositional or sentential form (as knowing that …). We learn how to do all sorts of things that, in the bosom of time, become more or less “automatic,” which suggests sub-conscious states (so to speak) are parasitic on conscious actions and events. Of course there are mental states that may be spontaneous, as in those phenomenal captured in Leslie Farber’s examples about the folly of “willing what cannot be willed,” but even then we can engage in intentional projects that increase the likelihood of their occurrence (as in Daoist and Buddhist methods of self-examination and meditation and other spiritual ‘exercises’ as John Cottingham’s describes them), so it would also be misleading to refer to these as “unconscious” phenomena even though their occurrence is unbidden, not willed, not deliberate in any straightforward “conscious” (or ‘self-conscious’) sense. In short, I would prefer we not conflate what Freud meant by the unconscious and the sort of routine or heuristic “thinking” (which of course is not always harmful or mistaken), biases, illusions, and so on that typically fall within the province of cognitive science (which is not to say that there may be explanatory overlap and boundary crossing between the domains, say, when we’re trying to account for cognitive biases that appear to arise from “hot” motivational structures like wishful thinking or self-deception or long-standing states of denial).

    • Important comments, Patrick. If I’m reading you correctly, the key distinction for you is that the sub-conscious is “just below” the threshold of consciousness – that is, that it is easy to bring much of it to conscious attention, in a way that continues to give the conscious mind its primacy. I am not sure I would agree with that. I think the hot motivational structures you describe are pretty widespread – a great deal of Buddhist thought and practice deals with the difficulty of rooting them out when they go down so deep. The intentional projects you mention are important in part because they are so involved and difficult; to bring the phenomena in question to conscious attention is hard, and I think it is hard in part because those phenomena are typically unconscious, difficult to bring up to the conscious mind. Of course a lot probably depends on how we define “conscious”.

  4. Amod, My reference to the “hot” motivational structures was intended to be in reference to that which is “unconscious” (hence the reference to boundary crossing). I happen to be, in many respects, a (neo-)Freudian (hence my fairly large bibliography on Freudian psychology) and I believe there’s much to learn from a psychoanalytic approach to mental and especially emotional phenomena but I think cognitive science is studying that which far closer to the surface of conscious awareness (hence its amenability to experiments) and thus, strictly speaking, does not treat the “unconscious” mind. (I should perhaps note that I find most if not all references to ‘the brain’ within cognitive psychology, which has often influenced philosophers, to be conceptually muddled if not simply false for the sorts of reasons provided by Maxwell R. Bennett, P.M.S. Hacker, Raymond Tallis, Dennis Patterson, Michael S. Pardo, and Grant Gillett, among others.) As for the last comment, habits are hard to break, and not necessarily because they’re unconscious, but because, through praxis (often over many years, beginning in our young adult lives if not earlier), they’ve become so ingrained (much like other things we learn): that they can be broken or changed is evidenced in many parts of life even if not as often as we would hope or like: such changes rarely require anything like psychoanalytic intervention, whereas those habits that are profoundly irrational or conspicuously distort our efforts to live a more or less “rational,” “normal” or “sane” life do strike me as having unconscious sources that require therapy of one kind or another (one, like psychoanalysis, with substantial pedigree). There does seem to be no small amount of conceptual confusion with regard to what “consciousness” (and related terms) means (here I’m inclined to see much of value in the work of P.M.S. Hacker, especially his book, The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature, although Hacker probably does not share my affection for Freud!). And I don’t doubt Buddhist thought and praxis deals with that which “goes down so deep” (hence, once more, my compilation on Buddhism and Psychology), I just don’t think (most) cognitive science does so as well (the illusions are, so to speak, of a different order, even if some of these more common illusions might likewise be employed by Buddhists for metaphorical or heuristic/pedagogical purposes).

    • Thanks for this clarification; I clearly missed your point the first time round. I think this is an interesting and potentially very fruitful way to approach the distinction between Kahneman-style cognitive science and what might be called “depth psychology”. (Is that term still used? To describe a larger cluster of psychological theories that include Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalysis but also Jung and Nietzsche?) My way of distinguishing the two so far was that depth psychology tends to a certain individual teleology – unearthing unconscious aims or goals to which our irrational drives tend – whereas for cognitivists our irrational habits are just there, either as evolutionary results that were adaptive at some point in the past, or as “spandrels” that happened as a sort of accidental byproduct of evolutionary adaptations. This puts it in a different way, that the kind of phenomena depth psychology studies are less accessible to the conscious mind. I’ll have to think about that further.

      Where would I find your compilation on Buddhism and psychology? I found a reading guide to Buddhism and psychoanalysis but that is a much narrower thing.

  5. Amod,
    That’s the compilation (yes, it is indeed a much narrower thing!): I was typing hurriedly because late in getting the dog out for his walk, at least that’s why I think I made the typo (that, with the Freudian list in the back of my mind). The compilation for Freudian psychology is, I think, more interesting. Depth psychology is a term still in use (at least out here on the West coast! see, for example, https://www.pacifica.edu/). Depth psychologists tend to frown on Freud, at least in comparison with Jung. The first section on the bibliography on Freudian psychology contains more than a few titles that provide, I hope, sufficient reason to find much of Freudian provenance still worth our time and attention (titles by Cavell, Dilman, Gardner, Lear, Levy, Wallwork, and Wolheim, for example). Personally, I’m not much interested in Jung, although one of my classmates from high school from over forty years ago teaches at Pacifica Graduate Institute and finds much of value in depth psychology (as well as several spiritual models of therapy and individuation). As for the limits of cognitive psychology (no less a worthy enterprise, especially when it is not beguiled by the neurosciences), I often quote the following from Jon Elster:

    “… [W]ith respect to an important subset of the emotions we can learn more from moralists, novelists, and playwrights than from the cumulative findings of scientific psychology. These emotions include regret, relief, hope, disappointment, shame, guilt, pridefulness, pride,* hybris, envy, jealousy, malice, pity, indignation, wrath, hatred, contempt, joy, grief, and romantic love. By contrast, the scientific study of the emotions can teach us a great deal about anger, fear, disgust, parental love, and sexual desire (if we count the last two as emotions). [….] I believe…that prescientific insights into the emotion are not simply superseded by modern psychology in the way that natural philosophy has been superseded by physics. Some men and women in the past have been superb students of human nature, with more wide-ranging personal experience, better powers of observation, and deeper intuitions than almost any psychologist I can think of. This is only what we should expect: There is no reason why one century out of twenty-five should have a privilege in wisdom an understanding. In the case of physics, this argument does not apply.”—Jon Elster, Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1999)
    * Elster defines “pride” as an emotion triggered by a belief about one’s own action and “pridefulness” as triggered by a belief about another’s character.

    For a taste of the complexity of the respective (actual and possible) comparative contributions and interrelations of scientific psychology, biology, Freudian and post-Freudian psychology, and philosophy, among other fields of inquiry, I recommend (to those provoked) the consecutive sections on “Psychological Activities” and “The Wayward Mind” (pp. 100-265) in Amélie Oksenberg Rorty’s Mind in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind (Beacon Press, 1988).

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