This is the first in a series of posts I'm writing about dogma as explained by Carl Jung, and what it tells us about the current state of the world. He said, in essence, dogma is a tool to protect ourselves from our unconscious. To understand what that means, we have to first understand what is meant by "conscious" and "unconscious," which is the subject of this first post.

The usual definitions of consciousness in terms of self-awareness or subjectivity are abstract, philosophical, and vague. I'm fond of the definition put forth by Julian Jaynes: consciousness is what you're conscious of. That may sound like a cheat, but let's see how we can apply it to common experience. Consider doing a crossword puzzle. You read the clue, look at the boxes the clue is for, think of some words that might go with the clue, and see if any of those will fit in the boxes. On its face, it seems like a good example of a fully conscious activity, as it requires a great deal of concentration, and you can't do it in the background while paying attention to something else. Yet, by Jaynes's definition, very little of the process is conscious at all. When you read the clue, what are you actually conscious of? The appearance of the words, the sound they make, and their meaning - at most. You have no awareness of the work you're doing to turn the symbols into sounds, the sounds into words, and the words into meaning. If you're a literate adult, you automated all that long ago.

Solving the puzzle, though, is clearly the part that requires high concentration and creative thinking. But is it conscious? Try and think of what you really experience as you try to solve a clue. You might even try doing a crossword puzzle for a few minutes, and pay attention to what it's like. When you "think of some words," what are you doing? If you're like me, you're not doing anything. You're staring at the box, waiting for a word to occur to you. And then - poof! - you've got a word. If it doesn't fit, repeat. Ironically, the most mentally active part of puzzle-solving is also the part most opaque to your consciousness. As Julian Jaynes said, consciousness is not necessary for thinking. Not only can we think via an intermittently unconscious processes, as we do when solving puzzles, we can think without being conscious at all. Major scientific breakthroughs have occurred while a scientist, stumped on a problem, went for a walk, and thought about something else. Then, just like a guess in crossword puzzle - poof! - the solution occurred to him. The great mathematician Ramanujan famously received many of his deep theorems in his sleep. What's more, he claimed they were told to him in his dreams by the goddess Namagiri Thayar. And why shouldn't he have thought so? He wasn't thinking up those theorems, was he?

That brings up an important feature of the unconscious: it's not under our control, and so it's generally not experienced as the self. When we experience a spontaneous insight, for example, we say it "came to" us, or "occurred to" us. We feel ourselves as in some sense passive participants. Jung believed that gods, far from being explanations for natural phenomena, were really explanations for interior, unconscious experiences, much like Ramanujan's mathematical muse. Jung also said, "Unconscious things of which we do not become conscious, are experienced as fate." Fate is the external projection of whatever it is that's causing us to live a life whose course we cannot affect. In reality, it's very likely this predicament is caused by some thought or behavior that we are not aware of, and need to bring into our consciousness before we can make progress.

The conscious mind is our most recent adaptation, and, as such, takes up relatively little real estate. If you apply the Jaynes definition of consciousness to your own experience, you'll find that almost all of your thinking is done unconsciously. Your consciousness is a thin veneer on top of a vast and powerful machine, made from both inborn abilities and tendencies, and behavior you've automated during your lifetime.

In the next post, I'll talk about what it means to protect ourselves from the unconscious, and how dogma allows us to do that.