God and the Unconscious

God and the Unconscious

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Meister and Hildegard Codex

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind…
—Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven


Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.
—Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood


 Introduction: Know Thyself

In Ancient Greece, written in gold over the temple portal at Delphi was the inscription, gnothi seauton—“Know Thyself.” The Roman poet Juvenal claimed these words had descended from heaven. Knowledge of oneself, this inscription suggested, constituted the doorway into religious wisdom—sacred knowledge presupposed self knowledge. In the quest to know oneself, the question naturally arises: by what means, with which methods, are we to come to know ourselves? Careful observation, systematic measurement—the methods of scientific enquiry—seem to reveal much about the “outer man”; but how are we to arrive at sound and sure knowledge of what Augustine called the “inner man” (interior homo)?

To begin, it seems that there is something inescapably private about the uniquely human phenomenon of consciousness. Our private thoughts and emotions may have subtle external manifestations that can indirectly elicit from others empathy and mutual understanding. Nevertheless, direct access to one’s own subjective cognitive or affective states seems restricted to “first person” experience alone. So it might seem that introspection—casting the light of our conscious awareness inward—must be the proper method by which we come to know such states, and thus, to know ourselves. Introspection directs the illuminating beam of consciousness toward the subject’s own inner life and experience.

The introspective method raises the problem of the scientific validity of such self-knowledge. Is it truly scientific if it is not publicly observable? Or experimentally controllable? Or repeatable? This leads to the further question of whether it is possible to develop a true “science of the mind”. This problem has plagued modern psychology since its beginnings late in the 19th Century. Science is typically understood to examine only publicly observable, universally available (and, when possible, experimentally repeatable) phenomena. Reacting to the introspective program of the early psychologists like Wilhelm Wundt and William James, the American behaviorists of the 20th Century claimed that data gained by means of introspection was not scientifically valid. A true science of the mind, the behaviorists argued, must be restricted to recording and collating only externally observable phenomena: measurable environmental inputs and behavioral outputs. What (if anything) transpired in the nebulous region of the subjective “mind” was of no interest to these behaviorists (who, unlike the psychoanalysts before them, set aside tweed jackets and proudly donned white coats, as a sign the scientific legitimacy of their new “psychological science”).

Even if we overcome these behaviorist prejudices, and allow some method of systematic introspection as a valid means of arriving at self-knowledge, and even if we attempt to reinstate a scientific program based upon such introspective methods, we will still fall short of developing a truly comprehensive science of mental life. This is because, for each individual subject, introspection alone will prove insufficient as a method of comprehensive self-knowledge. The reason for this can be encapsulated by the term “unconscious”. It has been widely held from ancient to modern times that there are realms of our interior life that lie outside of conscious awareness. Thus, some aspects of our mental life are, in principle, inaccessible through the introspective method. “Gazing inward” can tell us much about ourselves but not everything. What remains lies outside of our conscious awareness, and thus appears difficult (if not impossible) to access.

The quest for self-knowledge, it would seem, is not going to be a simple project. Nietzsche expressed our difficulties in this regard: “We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves…. Of necessity we remain strangers to ourselves, we understand ourselves not, in our selves we are bound to be mistaken…. As far as ourselves are concerned we are not knowers.” While Nietzsche may be overstating the case, it does seem warranted to say that self-knowledge, if not impossible, is at least difficult to attain, and that introspection is insufficient as a method to “know thyself”. The contemporary novelist Walker Percy, in two of the five subtitles of his self-help parody book, Lost in the Cosmos, expresses (with characteristic wit) the paradoxical difficulties we have in trying to know ourselves: “Why is it that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos—novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes—you are beyond doubt the strangest?” and, “Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life?”

In attempting to gain self-knowledge, if we are to go beyond the results obtainable through behaviorist experiments or introspective methods, it seems that we will need to gain some understanding of what constitutes our unconscious mental life. Perhaps if we can discover some way to plumb the unconscious, we will begin to advance in deeper self-knowledge. And perhaps if we advance in self-knowledge, we may also advance (as the Greek Temple portal inscription suggested) in knowledge of higher things.

The Unconscious Discovered: Ancient and Medieval Philosophy

The exploration of the human subject’s inwardness—of man’s private interior life—finds exemplary expression in Augustine’s Confessions. This work is often cited as the first historical example in the West of the autobiographical genre of literature, though it is a work that defies categorization—at once a searching biography, a masterpiece of Latin literature, a philosophical treatise, and a classic work of Christian theology. In addition to getting credit as the first autobiographer, Augustine is often credited by contemporary philosophers with developing implicit concepts that lead more or less directly to modern notions of “the self”. Theologian John Cavadini has pointed out, however, that there is no abstract noun in Augustine’s Latin corresponding to the word “self” (despite translations of Augustine which use the English “self” for Augustine’s interior homo or ego).1

The lack of correspondence between Augustine and contemporary thinkers in this regard is not simply a matter of translation. The “inmost self”—or more literally, “interior man”—in Augustine does not resemble the typical modern concepts of the self (in which the self is constituted primarily by an accomplished set of self-developed competences and inherent powers). By contrast, Augustine’s interior homo is no stable inner reality, ready to be viewed clearly and distinctly by the purified inner vision of introspection. The “I” explored with such penetrating insight in the Confessions defies attempts at a clear introspective view: for Augustine, there simply is no clearly established, private inner space of the self, above which God stably hovers. As Cavadini explains:

The content of self-awareness for those truly self aware, is much more disturbing and mysterious, more exciting and hopeful, more treacherous and full of risk. Someone who is self-aware is not aware not aware of a reified self, but of a struggle, a brokenness, a gift, a process of healing, a resistance to healing, an emptiness, a reference that impels one not to concentrate on oneself in the end, but on that to which one’s self awareness propels one—to God.2

In stark contrast to modern rationalists, Augustine saw self-sufficiency as an illusion: the self is no disembodied thinking thing accessible to self-consciousness and isolated from other selves. For Augustine, the interior man explored by psychology is just as incomplete and needy, just as finite and fragile, as is the exterior man explored by biology. In his penetrating self-examination, Augustine saw his inner life not as a closed room into which he could clearly shine the light of introspective self-awareness. Rather, he understood the soul at the deepest level to be open above to that which transcends one’s finite self. Although he did not use the term “unconscious,” he recognized that there existed aspects of his interior life not wholly knowable through introspection alone.

Reflecting, for example, upon the mysterious capacity of memory, he wrote, “How great, my God, is this force of memory, how exceedingly great! It is like a vast and boundless subterranean shrine. Who has ever reached the bottom of it? Yet this is a faculty of my mind and belongs to my nature; nor can I myself grasp all that I am.” He could not grasp it, yet it was within him; he was aware of his unawareness; in his “learned ignorance,” he glimpsed the ineffable depths of his interior life. The unconscious realms that eluded his grasp were no less a part of him for being beyond his comprehension. A sense of mystery was at the heart of Augustine’s self-explorations. His self-knowledge necessarily included knowing the limits of self-knowledge: this humble Socratic ignorance constituted a higher form of wisdom about one’s self than any hubristic claims to formulaic self-knowledge.

Even prior to Augustine’s day, the concept of the unconscious—of a mysterious depth that was in principle not directly accessible—was present implicitly in Greek philosophy. It becomes more explicit and was developed further in later scholastic medieval philosophy. According to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, the human soul (Gr. psyche, Lat., anima) is obscure to itself. Its intimate nature escapes introspection, because the soul knows its concrete existence only by reflection upon its acts (e.g., perceiving, knowing, willing, remembering, etc.). The hidden ground of the soul is inferred from its manifest (and more immediately known) effects. But the underlying cause lies outside of immediate conscious awareness. The faculties of the intellect and will, the appetites and passions, the imagination and memory all have roots that are, in the last analysis, inaccessible to the introspective gaze. Analogously, the basic habits and acquired tendencies (the virtues and vices) which shape these faculties and collectively (along with one’s inborn inclinations) constitute one’s character—all of these operate with some degree of automaticity that do not require full conscious awareness.

It should be clear from this that while the term “unconscious” did not appear in the context of psychology or medical writings until later, the concept itself is present much earlier in Western thought. An unconscious realm essential to man’s nature is found in the philosophy of Plato (with his epistemological theory of recollection—where one learns by realizing what one implicitly knew already), in the philosophical anthropology of Aristotle and Aquinas, and especially, in the profound explorations of man’s interior life found in Augustine’s works.

The Unconscious Exiled and Returned: Modern Philosophy and Psychoanalysis

At the beginning of the modern period, Descartes ruled out unconscious mental processes as an object of study. Descartes claimed that we are to give assent only to “clear and distinct” ideas, i.e., only to those ideas most immediately accessible to conscious awareness.3 According to Descartes and his rationalist descendents, conscious reason was to be our exclusive guide. Descartes equated thought with conscious rational processes, and rigidly divided the physical and mental realms of man’s life by way of his dualist account of human nature. This dualism strictly separated mind from body, reason from perception, and abstract concepts from the somatic passions. This scheme made no room for unconscious cognitive, affective, or motivational states; it turned man’s inner life into the stable, closed room that Augustine knew to be a fiction.

Following up on Descartes’ doubts about the possibility of certitude, along came Freud a few hundred years later to shatter the hard won Cartesian confidence in reason. Descartes’ extreme begat Freud’s opposite extreme. Following a trail blazed by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Freud claimed that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—no matter how clear, distinct, and rational they may appear on the surface—are for the most part controlled by tumultuous unconscious forces, operating relentlessly beneath the tranquil surface. Although the unconscious was inaccessible to all but the psychoanalyst, it nevertheless influenced us in radical, often disturbing ways. In contrast to Descartes’ portrait of “rational man,” operating from the clarity of consciously experienced logical reason, Freud introduced us to “psychological man,” operating from unconscious, irrational, and contradictory ideas, affects, fantasies, and wishes.4

Freud’s biographer Ernest Jones listed the six most common words Freud used to describe the unconscious: repressed, active, bestial, infantile, alogical, and of course, sexual. Such were the forces bubbling up from the seething cauldron of the unconscious. When the patient (with necessary assistance of the expert psychoanalyst) looked inward, what he saw was not pretty: it was neither the tranquil, ordered, and clearly discernable closed room of Cartesian inner-space, nor was it the mysterious depths of Augustine’s soul open to a transcendent personal God. Rather, the “ego” was a precariously constructed mask placed tenuously over the vast unconscious reservoir of sexual and aggressive drives.

William James, who among other things founded the first laboratory of experimental psychology at Harvard in the 1870s, issued a cogent critique of the modern concept of the unconscious. This critique derived from his conviction that the new science of mental life should be radically empiricist. James himself did not reject the concept of unconscious mental processes (though he preferred the terms “subliminal” and “subconscious” to designate these). But he recognized that explanatory appeals to “the unconscious”, if not securely moored to sound observations, could potentially lead to wildly misbegotten flights of fancy.

In the Principles of Psychology, James warned, “The distinction… between the unconscious and the conscious bei g of the mental state… is the sovereign means for believing what one likes in psychology, and of turning what might become a science into a tumbling-ground for whimsies.”5 For the next hundred years of theory and therapy—from the untamed id of the 1890s to the recovered memory debacle of the 1980s—this warning went largely unheeded. Clinical exercises in unearthing unconscious material often amounted to just what he worried about—exercises in whimsical tumbling.

The Unconscious: Contemporary Neurobiological Considerations

To some degree, more recent studies in neurobiology have begun to remedy this. At first glance, the unconscious does not seem like a likely object of study for the biological sciences. Unlike serotonin receptors, dopamine, cortisol, or the amygdala, the “unconscious” appears free-floating, unmoored from anything measurable, and therefore, a potential excuse for the most fantastic assertions and interpretations. But recent research has begun to uncover what appear to be neurobiological underpinnings of unconscious cognitive and affective processes. Studies examining brain-damaged patients distinguish faculties of explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious) memory. From studies of blindsight and neglect in other neurologically impaired patients, we find evidence for the distinction between explicit and implicit (unconscious) perception. Studies of Korsakoff syndrome patients suggest that there can be unconscious learning of knowledge and behavior, acquired without conscious awareness. While the details of these studies lie outside the scope of this paper, I will briefly discuss one set of contemporary scientific findings which demonstrate that some unconscious mental processes are inherently relational.

Contemporary cognitive science reveals that much is occurring unconsciously, yet measurably, in ordinary face to face interpersonal encounters. The human face is a remarkable canvas of self-presentation6 , with thirty finely tuned muscles of facial expression that facilitate subtle communication with other human beings, which is often given and received without conscious awareness. In connection with this, evidence for what has been dubbed the “mirror neuron” system has come to light in the last ten years. Such neurons activate (to a lesser degree) similar localized areas of the brain in the receiver observing an action as are activated in the actor performing the action. This allows the receiver to subjectively experience (and sometimes imitate behaviorally) some of what the actor is doing or feeling (the tired stretch of a yawn, the warm glow of a smile, for example). Networks of these mirror neurons facilitate intersubjectivity—the sharing of affect and meaning between individuals—by way of unconscious imitation, communication, and interpersonal empathy. In what has been dubbed the Michelangelo effect, studies have shown that persons who live in intimate relationship with one another for many years (e.g., married couples) tend automatically and unconsciously to take on the facial features—the very lines and wrinkles—of the other person.

The function of mirror neurons can be described in terms of what phenomenologist Edmund Husserl termed “coupling”, which he argued occurs whenever one person perceives another person. This coupling takes place without loss of or detriment to one’s sense of self as distinct from the other: this is preserved during the activation of mirror neurons such that there is no literal “melding” of two minds. Self and other are intimately joined and yet remain distinguished (in part through somatosensory information from one’s own body), even while they are mirroring one another in this unconsciously enacted coupling dance.7 The mirror neuron system and other recent findings from cognitive science reveal unconscious mental processes to be inherently relational: the mind is dependent upon other persons for its full functioning and development. No man’s unconscious mind is an island, sufficient unto itself.

These studies, many of them remarkable for their scientific rigor, address James’ concern that the unconscious may turn what might become a science into a pseudo-scientific enterprise. Their findings support the concept of the unconscious, while grounding it in empirical evidence instead of armchair speculation. As psychiatrists gain experimentally-based knowledge of unconscious mental processes, they are less prone to whimsical tumbling in the clinical setting. The clinician is prevented from spinning off into unwarranted speculation through a clear understanding of what sort of mental events do, and do not, occur unconsciously.

Comparing Freud’s view of the unconscious to the portrait emerging from recent neurobiological studies, it seems that “unconscious” should function less as a noun—as in the Freudian concept of the unconscious as a place or realm within our mental structure or topography—and more as an adjective or adverb that qualifies some of our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and motivations as occurring outside of awareness. The term is descriptive rather than explanatory. (Incidentally, this is how the word “unconscious” functioned not only in the psychological writings of William James, but also in the novels of his equally renowned brother, Henry.) Modern psychiatry has begun to dispense with the Freudian unconscious, confining it to the dustbin of unproved (indeed, unfalsifiable) psychological concepts. But unlike the behaviorists, who threw out the mental baby with the bathwater, we need not jettison all references to the unconscious.

The contemporary understanding of the unconscious turns out to be less Freudian, and more—of all things—Aristotelian. The peripatetic philosopher identified and distinguished various mental faculties: the intellect (reason), the will (the rational appetite), the passions (what we call emotions), and the appetites (analogous to the Freudian drives, absent the death instinct).8 While Aristotle did not speak explicitly of an unconscious, modern cognitive psychology and neurobiology suggest that the mental faculties he identified have unconscious analogues: the cognitive unconscious (intellect), the motivational unconscious (will), and the emotional unconscious (passions). These distinctions do not objectify (or, if one can speak this way, “thing-ify”) the unconscious, nor do they rigidly divide it from consciousness. Rather, unconscious faculties are less to be conceptualized as a single substantial entity, and more properly understood as integrated aspects of the unified whole that is biological and mental life. Expressed another way, just as William James described a stream of consciousness, so also, there appears to be an analogous stream of unconsciousness.

Modern psychological and biological explorations of the mind show that unconscious mental faculties are more significant than Descartes believed, and more rational and relational than Freud claimed. Contrary to the stated aim of psychoanalysis, making the unconscious conscious is not invariably advantageous: the athlete whose implicit, procedural memory helps him to pole vault in a state of automatic “flow” would only ruin his vault by trying to consciously control each movement of his flying body. All sorts of human activities can benefit from becoming more unconscious, as Tolstoy knew and described in his novel, Anna Karenina, in a celebrated passage on human work:

The longer Levin went on mowing, the oftener he experienced those moments of unconsciousness when his arms no longer seemed to swing the scythe, but the scythe itself his whole body, so vigorous and full of life; and as if by magic, regularly and definitely without a conscious thought being given to it, the work accomplished itself of its own accord. These were blessed moments.9

If the unconscious allows us to accomplish work of its own accord, making possible such blessed moments, we would do well not to ignore it. After its promiscuous psychoanalytic beginnings and subsequent exile courtesy of behaviorism, the unconscious has returned. The tools of contemporary neurobiology and experimental psychology give us a chastened view of its true features: we now see that unconscious mental life is learned, habitual, adaptive, intrinsically and irreducibly relational, and in the last analysis, essential to human health and flourishing.

Unconscious Moral Development and Religious Conversion

Some practical therapeutic consequences result from our contemporary view of the unconscious. While the legitimate aim of psychotherapy is often to make unconscious processes conscious (as Freud taught), the therapeutic goal may also legitimately run in the opposite direction: sometimes therapy aims to make conscious processes more unconscious. For example, the beginning stages of cognitive therapy involve bringing automatic negative thoughts into awareness, in order to subject them to more deliberate and rational conscious control. Once this is achieved, however, the ultimate goal is that more realistic thoughts and behaviors eventually become less deliberate and more automatic—that is, more unconscious.

Aristotle spoke of a similar phenomenon in the context of acquiring good (virtuous) habits and ridding ourselves of bad (vicious) habits. When perfected, the virtues become, in his well-worn phrase, “second nature”. What has become second nature is largely unconscious and automatic. A sign of moral development, when a person has acquired a high degree of virtue, is that an otherwise difficult moral act is performed with ease—one could say, the good act is accomplished almost unconsciously.

In addition to the gradual and progressive acquisition of virtues, unconscious cognitive and volitional processes seem to be at work in the period of life preceding sudden and dramatic changes of thought and behavior, such as those characteristically seen in religious conversions. William James devotes two chapters to the phenomenon of conversion in his Varieties of Religious Experience. While some conversions occur slowly and gradually, others seem to burst forth with a dramatic suddenness, which nevertheless can produce deep and lasting changes in a person’s thought, feeling, and action. “To say that a man is ‘converted’ means, in these [psychological] terms, that religious ideas, previously peripheral in his consciousness, now take a central place, and that religious aims form the habitual center of his energy,” James Explains.10 He describes several cases of sudden conversion that illustrate the effect of “unconscious incubation” of ideas of which, when the time is ripe, the person suddenly grows conscious. These ideas come to sudden flowering and fruition in the form of a profoundly life changing experience that subsequently alters the course of one’s entire life and character.

Anticipating the objection that he is explaining a supernatural phenomenon (the workings of grace in the process of conversion) in entirely naturalistic terms (the operations of unconscious mental processes), James notes that “psychology and religion are in perfect harmony up to this point, since both admit that there are forces seemingly outside of the conscious individual that bring redemption to his life.”11 He sees no necessary contradiction between psychology, which would speak of these forces in terms of subconscious incubation operating on the natural level, and theology, which would speak of these forces in terms of grace operating on the supernatural level. For James, the possibility was entirely open that supernatural grace could operate on the human person precisely by means of assisting natural unconscious processes. In the following passage he offers a suggestive, potentially reconciling solution, while (in his characteristic fashion) carefully refraining from passing judgment on questions theological:

But just as our primary wide-awake consciousness throws open our senses to the touch of things material, so it is logically conceivable that if there be higher spiritual agencies that can directly touch us, the psychological condition of their doing so might be our possession of a subconscious region which along should yield access to them. The hubbub of the waking life might close a door [to supernatural grace] which in the dreamily Subliminal might remain ajar or open.12

The Limits of Therapy

Our considerations of unconscious processes in one’s moral and religious development leads to some considerations related to the craft of therapy and the practice of medicine.
We begin here with Freud, who claimed to have discovered what his famous patient Anna O. dubbed, “the talking cure”. Because of his mechanistic and materialistic view of the unconscious drives and defense mechanisms (the chief of which was repression), Freud taught that, at least in principle, it was possible for psychoanalysis to discover the secrets of the self. For Freud, the human being was fundamentally knowable: what is hidden can always eventually be brought to light, if only one applies the right methods with sufficient vigor. Freud describes this (borrowing Biblical metaphors) as follows:

When I [initially] set myself the task of bringing to light what human beings keep hidden within them… I felt the task was a harder one that it really is. He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his looks are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him in every pore. And thus the task of making conscious the most hidden recesses of the mind is one which it is quite possible to accomplish.13

The psychoanalyst, if sufficiently skilled in his craft, is placed in the position of omniscience, if not in actual knowledge, at least in terms of his potential knowledge of the patient. The desire on the part of patients to be privy to such omniscient self-knowledge was evident in the large sums of money and tremendous investment of time that many spent lying on the analyst’s couch and free-associating their brains out. Such patients often sought a formulation (perhaps in simple mechanistic terms) of why they act as they do, of why they feel or think as they do. Gnosticism’s promises of secret, hidden, salvific knowledge granted to the select few has tempted modern people no less than those in the early centuries of Christianity.

But, if we understand the unconscious rightly, we see that human beings—contra Freud—are by nature never fully analyzable. We humans are beguiling in our intractable mysteriousness: the psyche is always outstripping attempts at facile formulation, and our unconscious mental life forever recedes from our grasp. We can discover (as Augustine did) suggestive signposts, tantalizing clues, and sometimes real self-discoveries; but we will never fully formulate, in Gnostic fashion, the secret of the self, no matter how much unconscious material we bring to conscious awareness. There always remains a mysterious core—a personal center—whose depths are never fully plumbed.

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