1) It seems to me that proving the existence of subconscious thoughts, motivations and mental states would be a definitive argument for dualism, since it would imply a level of complexity that can never be reduced to mere brain states and would make a pragmatic or behaviorist solution to the mind-body problem very unlikely.

2) Many people would argue that they have dealt with people with subconscious mental states before, that they've met someone who didn't know the real motivation behind his actions or opinions.

3) Advertisers and marketers regularly and successfully use subliminal suggestion techniques to sells their products.

The latter two seem to be strong arguments in favor of subconscious mental states.

My question:

  • Has anyone attempted to empirically prove the existence of the subconscious?
  • When I read this article, phys.org/news173346511.html your assumption 3 seems to me could not be said "successful enough". May be, to me only sub-consciousness might not matter if you say so.
    – user13955
    Apr 29, 2015 at 4:47
  • yeh it's proven - can't remember what experiments, but there's literal empirical proof that people process things without being conscious of them... if that's what you mean ?
    – user6917
    Apr 29, 2015 at 8:59

3 Answers 3


You aren't conscious of the state of retinal molecules in your eye (cis vs. trans), but your vision is completely dependent upon it. You are really overstating what one can infer from having subconscious motivations etc.; almost everything that happens in our heads is subconscious.

Also, you don't need to do a study to notice that some people (adults as well as children) act differently without being aware of it when they are hungry (as an example). So apparently at some level there are very obviously subconscious mental states.

That said, there are numerous studies that involve various not-consciously-perceptible cues that significantly affect various behaviors of people. (Many of these are priming experiments; there's an overview of some relevant experiments from Scientific American.) So, yes, people have looked in carefully controlled studies, and yes, there's something there.

But that hasn't much to do with dualism.

  • Subconscious and subliminal are not the same thing. Neither are subconscious and unconscious in an absolute sense. Subconscious, historically, presumes material attempting to intrude into consciousness, which bears some element of will.
    – user9166
    Apr 30, 2015 at 3:01
  • @jobermark - Agreed, but the experiments that have been performed seem to cover what the OP was asking. There are enough experiments of various sorts to be at least strongly suggestive for many definitions of "subconscious", but if a precise one is offered I might need to amend my answer.
    – Rex Kerr
    Apr 30, 2015 at 6:42
  • @RexKerr It seems that you are confusing sensory input and brain states. Retinal states are not the same as brain states. Hunger is a state of the digestif system, not the brain. The central question of dualism vs materialist monism is whether brain states and mental states are identical or not? That mental states are not the same as sensory input is a given. May 4, 2015 at 1:52
  • @AlexanderSKing - s/retina/V1/, s/retinal/glutamate-gated ion channels/, s/cis vs. trains/open vs. closed/. If you were arguing that some neuron's voltage or the state of some molecule wasn't part of a mental state, you'd have a point. But your brain is full of state, almost none of which you have any awareness of whatsoever. Whether you call that subconscious, unconscious, non-conscious, a reductive view where consciousness is not a sensible phenomenon to talk about, or something else, the point is that lots of stuff is going on which you cannot be consciously aware of.
    – Rex Kerr
    May 4, 2015 at 2:52

Freud, the originator of the concepts that grew into our notion of the 'subconscious', would surely disagree with your first point. He was attempting a form of biological reductionism when he proposed the psychoanalytic theory. All of his reasoning about primary process thinking and remnants of the developmental process is meant to reduce human motivation to biology and history.

The theorization of the primary process does not increase the perceived complexity of thought, or render it more holistic and independent of biology. Instead it reduces the apparent complexity by presuming that emotional and logical resolution happens in passes, much like Chomsky's notion of deep-structure and transformation makes language more easily modeled mechanically, rather than less so, by theorizing layers of processing that can be detached from one another and separately analyzed.

In fact, the idea that a good part of your everyday motivation is not conscious to you ties the mind to the body more strongly. It leaves decision-making activity in the brain that may or may not be in the mind as it is imagined by idealists. If an obsession is something like a seizure, then interest and focus are biological things, not esoteric qualities of mind.

And even if subconscious content is taken to pump up the volume of what is mind, the few well-articulated forms (starting from the various forms of psychoanalysis, but also including cognitive-behaviorism and other models) all do so by presuming a separate layer of mind that we share with animals or a layer of the mind that is shared between humans. Few absolute mind/body dualists want the idea of mind distributed around the biological tree or attributed to groups and cultures. It makes for a muddy wake of confusing issues around what kind of things do and do not think. This does not help arguments that start from looking inward, as most dualist philosophies have. If 'mind' is not primarily a human aspect, it would make just as much sense to look into the behavior of a dog, or of an army, as of a man. It would give the process some objectivity and perspective.

So, while I am personally convinced of the role of the subconscious, and there are whole journals are devoted to psychoanalytical research, with a major component of their content devoted to grounding the theory in fact, I see it as a theoretical step away from, rather than toward mind/body dualism.

  • "Few absolute mind/body dualists want the idea of mind distributed around the biological tree or attributed to groups and cultures." Why not? The division of the mind into an animal part and a human (presumably rational) part would fit perfectly with Cartesian rationalism - that at least part of the mind operates per the laws of reason and not on instinct would be a strong argument in favor of the whole "I think therefore I am" thing. May 6, 2015 at 1:51
  • @AlexanderSKing But then does that animal part think in the sense of having mind, or not? At what point does the dualism dualize? At the functioning of a dog, of a worm, of a cell, of a gene? Likewise, is there a 'group mind' like Bion would say or a 'collective conscious and unconscious' like Jung? Most dualists cringe at the idea. They want to identify mind by looking inward and they want mind to be just what humans have that separate them off as individuals that are not animals.
    – user9166
    May 6, 2015 at 5:04
  • @AlexanderSKing I think there is a sense in which mind adheres to this entire spectrum, and considered this philosophy a defensible sort of dualism. But 'pan-mentalism' parallel to 'pantheism' tends to alienate 'real' dualists as much as pantheism annoys the genuinely religious.
    – user9166
    May 6, 2015 at 5:07
  • agreed that panmentalism, like pantheism becomes a sort of copout. But there at least an answer to "At what point does the dualism dualize? " Per Hofstadter, the moment the brain becomes powerful enough (in terms of richness of symbols that it can manipulate) to start referring to itself, or to use Hofstadter's terminology the moment it can start storing strange loops. May 6, 2015 at 5:11
  • @AlexanderSKing But that is not dualism, it is functionalism. Strange attractors are a complex physicalized thing. Dualism insists mind is not made of material occurrences, but is of a separate substance. So you are even farther from answering the question. At what point can the behavior no longer be attributed to physical behavior, however sophisticated? If you think that is the wrong question, you are not a mind/body dualist.
    – user9166
    May 6, 2015 at 13:34

I don't see how your statement logically follows. Just because there is a subconscious wouldn't imply dualism, at least I don't see how that would be. Please explicate more so I can more appropriately answer the question.

  • This kind of thing should be a comment, and not an answer. I am not sure answers ever get sent to the question's author, but I am pretty sure comments on the question do. So if you are addressing the author, and not his question, do so in a comment.
    – user9166
    May 2, 2015 at 3:39
  • @William Perkins : Subconscious states are not definitive proof of dualism, but a strong argument for it. It is so because the existence of subconscious states implies a complexity to mental states which makes them harder to map one-to-one to brain states or simple behavioral states. May 4, 2015 at 1:55

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