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Unconscious Intelligence

William James Sidis

Appendix IV, Symptomatology, Psychognosis, and Diagnosis of Psychopathic Diseases  by  Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D. Boston: Badger, 1914, 432-439. (Note: W.J. is not listed in Table of Contents as author).


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        The subject we are to deal with here is the explanation of certain psychological facts on the basis of logical methods. Certain actions have been observed which seem to indicate intelligence, but which are supposed not to be phenomena of consciousness. In order to pass a decision on such statements (in which I must assume the facts claimed by both sides to be correct) we must get a general idea of the methods we are going to use.

        The first of these methods is the method of isomorphism. This depends on the supposition that, if in two hypotheses the consequences are the same, the two hypotheses may be considered as identical for all purposes of further reasoning. In other words, there is no use in drawing arbitrary distinctions where none really exist. When we reason from a hypothesis, its consequences come into play at every step of the reasoning; and if those consequences are the same, all reasoning will be the same, and therefore no difference can really be drawn. Again, a question of decision between two theories whose consequences are and must be the same must necessarily be one where no evidence is obtainable, and is therefore a question which cannot be discussed at all. It is like the old question of the man and the monkey: "If a monkey is on a pole, constantly facing a man who walks around the pole, has the man gone round the monkey?"

        We may now proceed to apply this method of isomorphism. There are two theories to explain certain psychological phenomena called the phenomena of the subconscious. One of these is that there is a consciousness performing all the acts of intelligence which are called subconscious; the other theory states that these acts are the results of an unconscious intelligence, which consists of purely physiological processes. It appears from the latter of the two above-mentioned theories that there is no essential difference between the properties of the unconscious intelligence and those of consciousness. Certain facts from my own personal experience prove that, at least in my own case, this "unconscious intelligence" can both read and remember. In March, 1911, while walking along a street, I suddenly began thinking about Virgil's Aeneid, and my attention became fixed on the expression "alma Venus" that I then remembered having read in that poem. In that expression I thought particularly on the meaning of the first word. After a few minutes (while I was still on the same block) I began wondering why I thought about that expression so suddenly. Looking around, I discovered that, among the things in the field of vision that I had not noticed was an apartment house called "The Alma." I certainly had no knowledge of the process which I know must have occurred, namely, the reading of the word, the memory that it was Latin, and the memory of the particular expression in which it occurred. Since, therefore, this process had occurred, and it was not within my consciousness, it was evidently a subconscious process. Accordingly, the "unconscious intelligence" within my brain can read and remember, and furthermore, it can remember for half a year, since it had been that time since I had seen that passage from Virgil.

        Again, in August, 1913, I was walking through a square in which there was a book-store. This book-store was at some distance from where I was walking, so that I could not reasonably notice what was in the show-window without looking quite hard. That night I dreamed of seeing a book with indistinct lettering on the cover. In the morning, passing the book-store at closer range, I found in the show-window a book with exactly the same sort of cover as the dream-book. This shows that I must have seen that book the preceding afternoon, but I certainly did not notice it. I must have seen it subconsciously, and my "unconscious intelligence" remembered it at least till two o'clock in the morning, when the dream occurred. The appearance of the book in the dream shows moreover that the memory was not only of the fact of having seen the book, but that it was also of the way the book looked: even the indistinct lettering in the dream was probably due to the fact that I had passed the store from a distance.

        The "unconscious intelligence" can both remember and reason, that is, it has the two properties most characteristic of consciousness. The subconscious, according to the facts agreed on by both theories, can also do all sorts of intelligent actions and adaptations. Thus, only recently, I kept repeating two stanzas of verse that could not have been composed by anything but my subconscious. We see then that such an "unconscious intelligence" differs in no way from a normal consciousness; except that I only know of it through circumstantial evidence. But the same can be said of the consciousness of another person; it is only through circumstantial evidence that I know of it. Whether the intelligence on whose nature we are arguing be conscious or unconscious, the consequences are the same in every way, and therefore such an "unconscious intelligence" is, according to the rule of isomorphism, practically identical with a consciousness that does not need proof in the Supreme Psychological Court.

        Any identity, however, is reversible. The supporters of the theory of unconsciousness can then easily reverse this identity, and say that the theory of actual consciousness in the phenomena under dispute must be identical with their own theory. However, what is this identity? Merely that, in subconsciousness, all the phenomena are present that are concomitant with consciousness. The disputed points, such as whether these phenomena are or are not to be called consciousness, may be for the moment set aside as quibble, for it is a question for a dictionary-maker rather than for a scientific investigator to define the exact use of a term such as consciousness. The dispute can now only be reduced to the question whether these phenomena, the same in every way, are to be assigned to the same or to different causes. That is, are the phenomena of normal consciousness and of subconsciousness manifestations of the same or of different occurrences? To reach any conclusion here, we must refer to the assumption of the uniformity of nature which is at the basis of all inductive logic, as well as of all science.

        This assumption is that effects which are in every essential way similar must be ascribed to the same cause. Without this proposition experimental science could lead to no results in the way of general laws; a Baconian collection of empty facts would be the only possible result, and all science would have to be merely descriptive. We may quote the words of Newton, who first expressed this principle in definite form in his Principia (Liber iii, Regulae Philosophandi, Regula ii) : "Ideoque effectuum naturalium eiusdem generis eaedem assignandae sunt causae, quatenus fieri potest. Uti respirationis in homine et in bestia; descensus lapidum in Europa et in America; Iucis in igne culinari et in sole; reflexionis lucis in terra et in planetis. (Natural effects of the same kind must be assigned to the same causes, whenever possible. Such as respiration in man and in animals; the fall of stones in Europe and in America; the light in a kitchen fire and in the sun; the reflection of light on the earth and in the planets)."

        In the dispute that we are now dealing with, we have a case where two phenomena are practically alike in every essential respect, and have no points of difference sufficient to justify a difference in explanation. Accordingly, as in the case of the fall of stones in Europe and America, the phenomena of consciousness and subconsciousness must be attributed to the same cause. Since it appears from what is said by the advocates of the "unconscious cerebration" theory that one of these phenomena is due to consciousness, and the other to an unconscious intelligence, it follows from the principle enunciated by Newton that their unconscious intelligence must be conscious. That is to say, the phenomena of the subconscious are due to a consciousness.

        We may take up the Cartesian hypothesis of physiological processes as an explanation of subconsciousness. Here again we may apply the principle of the uniformity of nature, if the Cartesians will accede to that logical canon. The phenomena of consciousness being identical with those of subconsciousness, we must explain all mental phenomena whatever by these same processes; for the Cartesians tell us that such an explanation is possible. Therefore whoever explains the phenomena of subconsciousness by means of physiological processes must give a mechanistic explanation of all mental phenomena. Of course, if a person wishes to regard the relation of consciousness to physiological processes either as that between the whistle and the locomotive, or as that between the forest and the trees, he may perfectly well do so. However, if this mechanistic hypothesis were true, there would be no difference between the phenomena of consciousness and of subconsciousness. The physiological theory therefore proves our former conclusion, namely, that the phenomena of the subconscious are due to a consciousness, which is the same physiologically as normal consciousness.

        Besides, since the phenomena of subconsciousness are of precisely the same kind as those of ordinary consciousness, we can certainly not consistently claim unconsciousness for the one and consciousness for the other. The existence of a consciousness is not disproved by the lack of direct evidence. I have no direct evidence of the consciousness of the persons with whom I speak; but yet they act precisely as if they were conscious, and I am thus led to infer that they are so. Similarly, if I see actions in my own body which I myself have nothing to do with (at least apparently), but which are precisely those kinds of actions that are produced by consciousness, I must infer that there is one more consciousness existent in me. Calling one conscious and denying that quality to the other is introducing a difference where there is none; and to deny consciousness where there is no direct evidence to construct a sort of solipsism. I must conclude then with a remark that such a theory as that of "unconscious intelligence" cannot logically be held.

        One of the supporters of the theory of "unconscious intelligence" has advanced an argument which is supposed to be a proof of the existence of unconscious intelligence. The argument, as nearly as I can understand it, is as follows: A number of subconscious actions is observed, and seen to manifest all the properties usually found in consciousness. Similarly, in decerebrate dogs, all actions usually called intelligent are found. Here, then, are examples of unconscious actions which show every property of intelligence. They certainly have to be called intelligence, for making a difference there is a mere "pragmatic question," and there is no logical point in calling conscious action intelligent, and other exactly similar actions unintelligent. Thus, these unconscious actions being intelligent, unconscious intelligence must exist.

        In the first place, let us see what the opposing theory is. The subconscious has been explained in two ways; according to one of these, the phenomena of the subconscious are manifestations of a consciousness, possessing all the attributes of intelligence and other adaptations that any consciousness possesses, while according to the other theory there is behind these phenomena an "unconscious intelligence" which has all the properties of intelligence, but which somehow or other is not conscious.

        With these two opposing theories in view, we may proceed to examine the argument. The two theories agree in stating that the phenomena of the subconscious are intelligent and have all the attributes which are usually ascribed to intelligence. The theories disagree as to whether or not the processes which produce the phenomena are conscious. Accordingly a reasoning which seeks to establish the "unconscious intelligence" theory by proving that these phenomena are intelligent is simply proving what is already agreed on; it may be in every way correct, but it is not to the point; it is an irrelevant conclusion. Furthermore, the reasoning says: We have proved that the phenomena under observation, which are unconscious, are intelligent; therefore unconscious processes may be intelligent. Expressed as a syllogism this would read: All processes in these experiments are intelligent; all processes in these experiments are unconscious; therefore some unconscious processes are intelligent. This may seem perfectly logical reasoning, and so indeed it would be if the premises were both acceptable. But let us examine the second premise. Stating that all the processes which come under observation in the experiments mentioned are unconscious is assuming precisely the point in question, so that we are merely proving what we have assumed. As far as the particular opinion of conscious action in such cases is concerned, the argument advanced contains not only an irrelevant conclusion, but a circular proof as well. The argument is guilty at least of this double fallacy.

        Furthermore, the argument, if carried out to its logical conclusion, would disprove its own result; and we may take this argument as an excellent disproof of the theory that it was intended to prove. Our advocate of "unconscious intelligence" has stated that conscious processes are in no way different from subconscious processes or from actions of decerbate dogs. Therefore, he concludes, it is a mere "pragmatic question" whether or not we should call one of these classes of actions intelligent and the other unintelligent, since there is no real difference between the two kinds of actions. Substitute all through the argument the term "conscious" for the term "intelligent." It is, then, a mere "pragmatic question" whether or not we are to call one of these classes conscious and the other unconscious, since there is no real difference between the two kinds of actions. If the argument about intelligence is valid, the argument about consciousness must also hold. Accordingly, pushing this argument to its logical conclusion, we deduce that not only the class of actions called subconscious, but also the actions of decerebrate dogs, are conscious actions. We cannot say that either the subconscious processes or decerebrate dogs are unconscious, according to the logical outcome of the argument advanced by the supporter of "unconscious intelligence"; on the contrary, we must deduce that there is a consciousness causing all subconscious actions, and that the consciousness of dogs does not depend on the presence of the cortex. The first of these conclusions from the argument we have taken up is the only one that is important for our purposes: subconscious processes are conscious.