THE UNCONSCIOUS, Part One

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18

Fort Hood: What We Don't Know

Thanks to Dr. Sheldon Cooper whom I follow on Twitter and with an acknowledgment and apologies to Sam Harris, author of Free Will, which I will reference in the following. 

  • On November 5, 2009 Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army major and psychiatrist killed 13 people and wounded 30 others.
  • On April 2, 2014, Ivan Lopez killed four people before killing himself.
  • Both killings occurred at Fort Hood.

Discussing a savage crime that occurred in 2007, Sam Harris postulates, “… [If] I were to trade places with one of these men [the  two who brutally battered, raped, and murdered members of a family}, atom for atom, I would be him…”  He continues by stating that free will is an illusion and that thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware.

I will add to Harris’s argument by replying that we may be unaware of the background causes of our actions but that we can be aware of them.  I will go further and say that the more we understand about our unconscious motives to action, by bringing them to consciousness, the more we introduce the possibility of free will because it allows us to recognize influences as well as choices that we did not recognize or believe we had in the first place.  This is the basis of self-awareness, self-knowledge, psychotherapy, and of our place in our community, our world, and in the universe.

To most observers, the Fort Hood shootings were different events that had different causes.  Hasan appeared to have gone on his rampage for religious reasons, while Lopez was under stress from combat, the loss of family members, and, so it is said, from an argument with superiors.  If, as Harris suggests, we were to trade places with one of these men atom for atom we might be either of of them, according to the argument.  But perhaps it doesn’t take a replacement of atoms but a substitution of circumstances.  If we were to walk a mile in their moccasins as the Cherokees say, we might better understand their circumstances without substituting even a single atom. 

What is the unconscious?  The unconscious is what Harris is talking about after all, when he addresses background causes of which we are unaware.  In my world view, this is the most important question in psychology and in life.  It has precedence in Freud, but arguably goes much further back and suggests an understanding that goes much deeper.  Oedipus, in ancient Greek history, would not have shied away from addressing the existence of the unconscious.  “What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?”  The question was unanswerable until Oedipus was asked it and found that he could answer it.  And for those of us who hear of the puzzle today, it is a yawner.  “Yeah, yeah, it’s a human being.  So what?”  So until you are told the answer, it is an unanswerable riddle that remains unconscious to you and to everyone else who does not take the time and/or is unable to figure it out.  Indeed, there is no reason to think that Oedipus knew the answer until the question was posed, but that it lay dormant in his unconscious until needed, and, when the circumstances were ripe, he answered by calling it into consciousness.

What is the unconscious?  It is everything that you are not conscious of or are unaware of.  It is everything out of the grasp of your mind.  It is everything you overlook, ignore, have no time for, or perceive as having no relevance.  It is the ghost hiding under your bed or in your closet.  It is the theory of relativity until it was discovered, along with quantum theory, and everything that is outside ourselves that we do not pay attention to.  That includes a sniper aiming at you from a mile away, a program designed to tap into your phone calls, and a recipe that you can’t remember or remember how to find.  What makes the unconscious conscious is the recognition of relevance and our need to discover what it is.  This makes for drama, suspense, comedy, what’s for dinner, and who we should watch out for.  Addressing what we don’t know gives us knowledge, enlarges our place in the universe, and increases our chance of survival.  And oftentimes the best explanations are not the simplest, but the one that goes to the heart of events and elaborate on them. 

Over dinner recently, I expressed trepidation that, if all calculators, computers, and smart stuff ceased to function, many people from multiple generations would be helpless to do even simple math.  My seventeen year old grandson responded by saying, “I have a calculator.”  This proved my point, but unfortunately further demonstrated that there was a large portion of a generation of people who wouldn’t know that I had a point or even what a point might be.  Is the universe expanding or shrinking?  I’ll leave that answer to astronomers and physicists.  Is our consciousness expanding or shrinking?  That is a problem for us all to address.