Commentary on Perruchet and Vinter

Abstract: 61 words
Main Text: 912 words
References: 107 words
Total Text: 1080 words

The Emergence of Consciousness: BUC versus SOC

Ron Sun
CECS Department
University of Missouri-Columbia
201 EBW
Columbia, MO 65211


This commentary suggests that there are two distinct types of interacting cognitive processes; conscious processes emerge from unconscious processes. The key problem of SOC is that it used an overly narrow notion of the ``cognitive unconscious" to show that the ``cognitive unconscious" was not necessary. But it has little to say about the roles of conscious and unconscious processes in general.

Main Text

Like Perruchet and Vinter, I would suggest that consciousness ``self organizes" and emerges. However, anything beyond that is where our agreement ends. The key questions are: Where does consciousness emerge from? Is there anything substantial beneath consciousness? What is there beneath consciousness?

In contrast to Perruchet and Vinter's SOC (or self organizing consciousness), BUC (or bottom-up consciousness), which has been developed for some time now (see Sun 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002; Sun et al 2001), insists on the duality of cognition. In BUC, it is suggested that there exist both conscious and unconscious processes in cognition. The essential difference between them lies in representation: While one type of cognitive process uses explicit and accessible representation, the other type uses implicit and relatively inaccessible representation. This representational difference might explain their phenomenological difference (Sun 1999, 2001). In other words, the phenomenological difference might be reduced to the representational difference. The two types of cognitive processes not only co-exist but also interact in complex and multi-facetted ways. One of the ways is that conscious percepts, concepts, rules, knowledge, and so on emerge from unconscious processes, in a bottom-up fashion. It has been suggested that this is the essential way by which consciousness emerges (Sun 2002). This view has been substantiated in a computational cognitive model named CLARION (Sun et al 2001), which simulated a range of psychological data (Sun 2002).

Let us now turn to SOC. In a nutshell, Perruchet and Vinter believe in the non-existence of the ``cognitive unconscious" --- a vague term that has been used to mean quite a few different things in the past. They went to great length in defending this thesis. They marshaled a large amount of empirical findings and interpretations (of their own and others) in the attempt to shore up their argument against the cognitive unconscious. It is certainly admirable to be this comprehensive. However, the sheer amount of information in this target article makes it rather difficult (and impossible given the length limitation for commentaries) to dissect their argument in a comprehensive fashion. So, I will instead focus only on a few key points concerning SOC (vis-a-vis BUC).

With a due respect for their huge undertaking, I found that their overall argument was conceptually rather unclear. For one thing, intentionally or unintentionally, they greatly broadened the definition of the conscious, and at the same time, narrowed down a great deal the definition of the cognitive unconscious. The authors defined the ``cognitive unconscious" in an overly narrow way --- as a sort of ``unconscious rule abstraction" (with some sort of ``symbolic" representation). Given this definition, it became an easy task to shoot the idea down and declare an easy victory. But, unfortunately, this apparent victory has nothing to do with the cognitive unconscious in general (Sun 2002).

For example, it has nothing to say about whether an instance based process is conscious or unconscious, or whether an associative learning mechanism is conscious or unconscious, both of which they relied on heavily in the target article, If we adopt the view that an instance based process or an associative learning process can be (either partially or wholly) unconscious, then their case against the ``cognitive unconscious" immediately falls apart. Yet, the argument that instance/exemplar based processes or associative learning processes can be unconscious is not unheard of (see, e.g., Smolensky 1988; Sun 1996, 1999; Sloman 1996). Alternatively, the authors might argue that instance based processes and associative learning processes are not ``cognitive". But, then, what is cognitive? The notion of the ``cognitive unconscious" becomes rather uninterestingly narrow, bordering on being empty. In contrast, BUC provides a much richer notion of cognition, and thus of the cognitive unconscious (although this term was not actually used). This richer notion makes detailed mechanistic descriptions of the emergence of consciousness possible (see Sun 2002).

On a related note, in my opinion, the representation/computation trade-off that the authors cited, and the implied dichotomy of representation versus computation, are completely orthogonal to the dichotomy of the conscious versus the unconscious. That is, a representation can be either consciously accessible or inaccessible; likewise, a computation can be either conscious or unconscious (Sun 1996). This should be self-evident (however, if not, lengthy arguments can always be found in various places, for example, Smolensky 1988, Sun 1996, Sun 2000, and various references cited therein). This view is the key to BUC as mentioned earlier. Yet, the two orthogonal dichotomies were entangled with each other throughout Perruchet and Vinter's article. There are many such confusions in their article.

I can see how the authors came up with this sweeping theory about consciousness --- as a result of their experimental work in artificial grammar learning and in other tasks. They have demonstrated some interesting findings that supposedly implicit learning of artificial grammars may be accounted for by ``conscious" fragmentary knowledge. But, in my view, this is not a sufficient reason to reject all together the existence of unconscious processes in cognition, not even with all the similar findings in other domains. We should be careful not to allow limited results from our favorite paradigm to shape our entire world view. Over-generalizing useful, but limited, results is methodologically harmful. It is something we should all guard against.


Sun, R. (1996). Commonsense reasoning with rules, cases, and connectionist models: a paradigmatic comparison. Fuzzy Sets and Systems. Vol.82, pp.187-200,

Sun, R. (1999). Accounting for the computational basis of consciousness: A connectionist approach. Consciousness and Cognition, Vol.8, pp.529-565.

Sun, R. (2000). Symbol grounding: a new look at an old idea. Philosophical Psychology, Vol.13, No.2, pp.149-172.

Sun, R. (2001). Computation, reduction, and teleology of consciousness. Cognitive Systems Research. Vol.1, No.4, pp.241-249.

Sun, R. (2002). Duality of the Mind. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ.

Sun, R., E. Merrill, and T. Peterson, (2001). From implicit skills to explicit knowledge: a bottom-up model of skill learning. Cognitive Science, Vol.25, No.2, pp.203-244.

(Sloman 1996, Smolensky 1988 were in the reference list of the target article.)


This work is supported in part by ARI contract DASW01-00-K-0012.