WHAT IS IT, TO KNOW? Does the Unconscious Know? Yes! What’s the Unconscious Anyway? WE FEEL, THEREFORE WE THINK

Being conscious doesn’t mean one is conscious of being conscious. Thinking is, first of all, an emotion! A set of emotions! An avalanche of emotions! Nor does knowing require that one knows one is knowing!

Suppose I am outside, and a terrible black cloud appears, and grows, and grows, towering ever more, and obscurity in the distance extends, ever more. Do I know something bad is about to happen? That’s a good guess! So I do know something, even though it’s nothing precise, or certain. But what are we sure of, in this world, besides death and taxes? We know that there is a probability that, this is all we know for sure… Just like in Quantum Mechanics! Probabilistic knowledge! Determinism was an illusion! When we know, we know, sort of. We were doing Quantum Mechanics all along, like Mr. Jourdain was doing prose, all along, and we didn’t know it!

Indeed, what is it, to know?

As I contemplate doom and gloom in the distance, this ominous cloud blossoming, occulting everything, I certainly start to feel, in my heart of hearts, that something terrible may happen. My emotional system knows something dreadful seems to be coming my way, but does that mean I “know” it? Some will say that sort of knowledge is not really knowledge. It amounts to nothing. However, emotions, e-motions are what makes people move, they move not just bodies, but reason itself. Yet, I sure know enough to be overwhelmed by a feeling of doom and gloom. That, in turn, will motivate me to look for a house, a cave, or barring those, some thick trees, a burrow, a trench…

Or look at the same sort of situation on a shorter timescale: suppose an avalanche or a predator, or a snake suddenly becomes apparent. My emotions know, and my brain will react, before I can describe the situation in words. The delay can be considerable, as all brain resources can be mobilized in desperate avoidance maneuvers, depriving the rest of this noble organ from any capability.


No time to think one is thinking! Too busy thinking! When does the adventurer know that he is in deep trouble? When he starts skiing funny? Of course. His brain got flooded by one emotion: AVALANCHE! At that point his consciousness became a slave to survival, as directed by a brain in full survival mode. Notice that he tries to stay on his feet, as long as he can, and gain speed over the avalanche itself, by heading straight down with a leftward angle, probably as his brain perceived, or established that the maximum development of the avalanche was maximum centrally, and to the right. Navarro (that’s his name) knew there was a cameraman to the left, and, although he had an anti-avalanche airbag, it made sense to get out of most of thick of the thousands of tons of snow roaring down.


Don’t smirk. Nowadays there are devices called avalanche bags. They are carried in special backpacks. When a backcountry skier is caught in an avalanche, the skier is supposed to pull on a cord. That activates the filling of a huge bag which then makes the skier ride down the avalanche like a bobbing cork, as the ensemble of skier plus airbag is lighter than the raging snow rushing down. It works very well… except that many skiers don’t deploy the bag! Why? My theory: their brains are too busy doing other things, to think about deploying the airbag. They just forget about it, too busy their brains being at saving their lives! Another name for it, some will say, is: panic. This is why armies drill troops as much as they do: they hardwire the behavior.

I have direct experiences of this sort of situations, as I love the outdoors a little bit too much. That includes two avalanches, both in Chamonix, and actually only a few miles apart. There was total absence of panic. When what looked as much of the spectacular peak of the Drus, the second most famous mountain in Chamonix, was falling towards me, in an ice funnel a mile high, I was certain that I was going to die, what did my brain do? Howl to heavens about the unfairness of it all? It was too busy to be panicked.

So the situation is a bit like this, in the case of ultimate peril: OK, this is death, incoming. However, panicking is not the subject at hand. The only reasonable thing to do, the only possibility, is to run across that ice couloir, towards that smooth and vertical, granite wall, 15 meters away. No alternative.

The brain is conditioned to do what needs to be done, even if completely hopeless. Because what is hopeless and fruitless for the individual is an investment and fruitful for the species. Indeed:


What is the evolutionary root of this?

Insuring the survival of the species is why and how it evolved. Suppose you are prehistoric man, confronting ten famished saber tooth lions, one hundred meters from your cave, and you have no weapon. What to do? There is no hope, you are saber tooth lion dinner, so put the hope of survival aside. Your survival doesn’t matter, but that doesn’t mean your life’s mission is finished. You can still fight ferociously, for goodness. Prehistoric man’s brain will then try to gouge a lion’s eye. Thus exacting a heavy price on the saber tooth lion species. Your vengeful sacrifice will help those in the cave, your family, tribe and friends, to survive. Actually, the lions know this, all clever predators know this, and they are leery to attack you: clever predators know enough rudiments of human psychology, they know enough of the human spirit, to know that, even cornered and weapon-less, a prehistoric man will fight to death, and exact a heavy price. So they may even leave you alone, and go for simpler prey.

(By the way, during World War Two, many populations, especially the Norwegian, the Poles, the French, the Yugoslavs, and Soviet resistance, exhibited this behavior, of suicidal, vengeful killing of Nazis, no matter what. The Nazis had not expected this, maybe because they were, as fully trained fascists, too much into obedience. This had decisive strategic consequences, fully in evidence during terminally ferocious battles in the Fall of 1941, including the Battle of Moscow, Bir Hakeim (when 3,000 French prevented the Afrika Korps to encircle the British Army), Stalingrad, and the exploits of various resistance: more than 7,000 Nazi trains were attacked, crossing Poland,  and the French resistance made the difference between success and defeat after D Day… As crack Nazi divisions, such as SS Das Reich, took three weeks to crawl to Normandy, instead of the expected three days.)

This inter-specific psychological interactions between beast and human consciousness can still be observed today. When weaponless Maasai confront real lions in Africa nowadays, the lions will typically behave like beaten dogs, respecting the human so much, they will do something else, like take a hike: the Maasai use this knowledge of leonid minds on a regular basis. And reciprocally. A Maasai alone with a stick will keep a lion pride at bay, just from the respect he inspires… I have myself engaged in this behavior, even as a child, and without a stick… 

So what is it, to think? Not necessarily to get discursive about it. The logos is a form of thinking, most accomplished (a particular case of the logos is the traditional concept of reason). However the general case is rather: “I FEEL, THEREFORE I THINK!

This is a vast generalization and a deepening of ancient trains of thought. For example, in “A Treatise of Human Nature” (1738), David Hume observed that: “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

What I add is that much, and sometimes most thinking, even occasionally nearly all of it, is itself removed from discursive consciousness. This is what happens in dreams. It is also what happens, at least partly in accidents. Victims often don’t remember the accident itself. The usual explanation is that the short term memory circuits had their power cut down, as it is directed somewhere else in the brain. But I would go further: the entire machinery of the usual form of consciousness is useless, and shut down!

All this as a preliminary to, and a consequence of a question in Quora:

Quora asked: At what point did German Commanders realize the war (WWII) was lost for Germany?

Predictably someone whined that the question was poorly posed: it lacked precision, and my iconoclast answer, was even worse (shortly after writing it, that someone realized that I used a generalization of the notion of knowledge, thus he deleted his full page of objection! Too bad, it was a good example of much that was wrong in conventional epistemology…)

I gave my own answer (and will reproduce it here soon): on September 3, 1939, the top Nazis got that ominous feeling, that dreadful sensation, that they abominable show was over: the French Republic had declared war, British poodle in tow (the UK’s war declaration preceded the French one by minutes, but 95% of the forces were French, and it was France which was bound to receive the brunt of the fighting).

So, in their hearts of hearts, the Nazis knew they were done: their probability to vanquished the combined might of the French and British empires was close to zero, especially in light of the fact that Nazi survival depended entirely upon the ongoing goodwill of the USA relative to Nazism… keeping in mind that the US was the Franco-British own personal offspring, the world’s mightiest brat.

However just like someone caught in an avalanche, the Nazis couldn’t stop, they couldn’t dare to put it in words. Instead, instead of renegading on what they were, instead of evolving out of their neurological dead-end, instead of making a logos out of it, the Nazis opted for neurological laziness, doing more of what they had built themselves to be, clinging to that old human instinct to deal with ultimate situations: great vengeance! Thus the Nazis subconsciously decided to extract a heavy price for having been so savagely interrupted in their robust, yet semi-peaceful (the way they saw it), takeover of the world, or, at least, Eastern Europe, by the Great German Reich… (Just as the 1935 UK-Hitler “Naval” Treaty had envisioned…)

Thus we have here a spectacular explanation for the thoroughly imbecile, self-defeating, mass criminal behavior of the Nazis in World War Two… It was deliberate. Not because the Nazis were trying to win, but because the Nazis knew that they had lost (to start with!)

Great vengeance is an evolutionary adaptation which has insured the survival of the species, by teaching the rest of the brainy biosphere, that human principles rule.

However, great vengeance can be diverted from its laudable evolutionary reason, and that’s a warning: it means irrationality can have the deepest cause

Be conscious, and worry, that consciousness is conscious of  what can’t even be put in words.

Patrice Aymé

February 24, 2018


5 Responses to “WHAT IS IT, TO KNOW? Does the Unconscious Know? Yes! What’s the Unconscious Anyway? WE FEEL, THEREFORE WE THINK”

  1. Gloucon X Says:

    What do you think about Noam Chomsky’s idea and statement that because of their denial of climate change the Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in human history? They know that they are destroying prospects for future human life and do it anyway because of short-term profit. He points out that even Hitler and the Nazis did not try to destroy all of human life. You say the deeper cause of Nazi Germany’s irrationality was vengeance, I agree. What do you think is the deeper cause of the Republican Party’s will to destroy all human life? I think I know the answer.

    • Gmax Says:

      Patrice said for years that climate denial was a threat much greater than Nazism. Also Trump didn’t used to be a climate denier and his Paris Accord denial is mostly fake. He just is granstanding, and doesn’t want to pay for the 100 billion to go to emerging countries

  2. Gmax Says:

    So is conscious intermittent? Or in pieces?

  3. Alphonse Says:

    a song about a skier out-skiing an avalanche!

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Welcome Alphonse. Next comment will appear immediately…Yes, a friend of mine, twenty years ago, out skied off a giant avalanche, much larger than the one in the video…. He is an expert skier. Kept skiing after losing a ski. That was before airbags and how he survived…

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