Obviously we focus our attention more on some objects and less on others. But even though a single thing may be the focus of our attention there are a number of things that are in the periphery, which we are aware of at the same time. But there are some things that we are paying no attention to, even though we are receiving the relevant input it seems that only our unconscious mind is doing anything with it. And so it seems best not to describe such perceptions as conscious, if we described them as perceptions at all. For example, if a constant tone is played for a long period of time people will “tune it out” eventually, and once they do they will be no longer consciously aware that it is present, or at least they will report that they aren’t consciously aware of it when they aren’t trying to focus on it. The tone is only made conscious again when it changes in some way, such as being turned off.
Some disagree with this analysis, and argue that even though we are not aware of the tone, and don’t report it as conscious, that it is conscious in spite of these facts. They support this position by arguing that it can be brought into conscious awareness, and that any changes in it will be brought to our awareness automatically. And thus that it must have been conscious all along.
Obviously I disagree. One reason to doubt the idea that the tone is conscious all along is that it isn’t present in the memory of our conscious experiences. When we remember an event obviously things that we were paying more attention to are clearer in the memory. But usually we will still be able to recall some of the things that we weren’t paying much attention to. We can think of the memory of a conscious event then as containing all the information, at least in outline, that was part of consciousness at this time*. And when we recall a memory we don’t have to focus our attention on the same things, and so we can analyze the contents of consciousness with less of a bias towards the objects that we were focused on. But even in our memories the tone is missing, which implies that it wasn’t conscious.
But I admit that this isn’t a conclusive reason to deny that the tone was conscious, after all memory is a fickle thing. Consider then a needle held behind someone’s neck. If they lean backwards it will be brought into their conscious awareness. And changes in the needle, such as its poking them, will also bring it into their awareness automatically. Does this mean that they were conscious of the needle all along? Obviously not, and if we are not conscious of the needle then we certainly are not necessarily conscious of the tone, because the reasons for claiming the tone is conscious are equally reasons to claim that the needle is conscious.
Given that we aren’t forced to conclude that the tone is conscious it seems best to conclude that it is unconscious, because to do otherwise would be to basically eliminate the unconscious mind. If the tone is conscious then certainly the unconscious mind is conscious as well. Things like unconscious desires have an influence on the choices we make, and we can become aware of them, just like we can become aware of the tone. However we wouldn’t want to make them, and much of the rest of the unconscious mind, conscious. To do so is simply to redefine consciousness to be something else. The unconscious mind was invented to explain certain quirks of the mind that couldn’t be attributed to consciousness. So to make the unconscious mind conscious is to either deny that there is anything that needs explaining by something other than consciousness, which seems implausible, or to deny that people’s reports have any authority regarding what they are and aren’t conscious of. This is because the claim that the unconscious was not in fact part some part of the conscious mind is based on the reports of people whom, when confronted with various facts about their unconscious, deny that they are conscious of those facts. So thus we would have to conclude that these people only mistakenly thought that they weren’t conscious of those facts. But if we can swallow that then consciousness itself seems to be thrown into doubt. What if people are mistaken about anything being conscious, or mistaken when they claim that they aren’t conscious of anything (of course you are conscious of events on mars, you just don’t think that you are conscious of them)? Clearly these are ridiculous possibilities to entertain, and thus to rule them out we must give people some level of authority regarding the content of their own conscious experiences.
Given that we accept that people have authority on what is and isn’t conscious for them in normal circumstances, since there may be occasions when the hypothesis that they simply can’t report or can’t remember those facts better fits the data, then we should conclude that sensory input that people pay no attention to is not in fact conscious.
* Obviously this isn’t completely true, memories contain much less information, but the information is reduced basically uniformly. Obviously the things we weren’t paying as much attention to are more likely to be dropped out of the memory. But nothing, like the tone if it were present, is missing in every single memory, even if we were paying little attention to it.