What are the functions of perceptual awareness?
Perceptual awareness enables us to identify and report the letter.
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Against the Simple Hypothesis, consider
an older experiment, first reported in 1898 by Boris Sidis. Sidis showed
subjects cards containing a single printed digit or letter ...
was placed at such a distance from the card that the character was far
out of his range of vision. He saw but a dim, blurred spot or dot” (1898:
In fact, “subjects often complained that they could not see
anything at all; that even the black, blurred, dim spot often disappeared
from their field of vision” (1898: 171). Some people said “that they
might as well shut their eyes and guess” (1898: 171).
However, when Sidis
asked his subjects to name the characters on the cards, their responses
were correct more often than would be expected if they were just
guessing. This is surprising, because it’s natural to assume that what
you consciously see determines what you write down; the Sidis’ results
show that this isn’t always true.
‘the presence within us of a secondary subwaking self that perceives things which the primary waking self is unable to get at’
Sidis, 1898 p. 171
Apparently, Sidis interpreted these and
related experiments as revealing “the presence within us of a secondary
subwaking self that perceives things which the primary waking self is
unable to get at” (1898: 171). In other words, it isn’t you who is
responsible for writing down the letters at all: it is another person who
shares your body and sees things you don’t.
Postulating a secondary self seems to make these results more, not less, confusing.
Not many people would accept Sidis’ suggestion, but it does show how
radically the discovery of nonconscious causes of action undermines a
very intuitive idea about how consciousness and action are related.
Ordinarily we think that we act on what we consciously see. This is bound
up with the sense we have of being in control of what we do, and of
knowing what we are doing. If some actions are based on information we
don’t even know we have, there is a sense in which these actions are not
our own. So you can see why Sidis thought he had discovered a second
person within his own body.
Natural thought is that there are many perceptual processes which do not involve
awareness at all ...
Sidis’ subjects are not perceptually aware of the letter but can identify and report it.
So we are left with the question ...