Conscious or Not?

Experiments show that decisions about simple choices, such as which of two buttons to press, are apparently reached in the brain before the owner of the brain is aware of the decision. Ideas occur to us unbidden all the time. These observations threaten the concept of free will because they suggest that the conscious mind is not actually in charge. The philosopher Sam Harris has written that free will is an illusion, citing this kind of evidence (Free Will, Simon and Schuster, 2012). Others, like Eddy Nahmias, concede that the evidence lessens the scope for free will, but does not go so far as to exclude it. There is of course a huge literature on free will, and of course I have not read even a small part of it. So in what follows I am just going to leave that alone.

Sometimes we make very big decisions with little thought- choosing a mate can be like a thunderbolt. But is it not often the case that we agonize over decisions, listing pros and cons literally on paper, or aloud, or silently over time? A big decision can take weeks sometimes, and the conscious mind engages intensely in a debate with itself. Should we sell the house and move to Nob Hill? Isn’t it easier to stay put, and more egalitarian? But we can afford it! In the end we make the decision, perhaps in a leap of volition that we later rationalize, or perhaps as the result of a carefully negotiated program. Whatever the details, the conscious part of our mind is involved in any slow decision.

Some might say – and I would agree – that the outcome is strictly determined by pre-existing facts and obeys the laws of physics and chemistry. But some of the causal elements may well be consciously experienced. Indeed for a lengthy process it is certain that there is a great deal of conscious input.

Now lots of people move house several times during their lifetime. The outcome of such decisions may vary from one occasion to the next, even involving the same person and the same house. In other words we are discussing irreproducible events. These are hard to study, to put it mildly.

Stephen J. Gould argued that if evolution were re-run, it would not necessarily produce the same species (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Belknap/Harvard, 2002). After all, the asteroid that terminated the Cretaceous period was clearly a one-off, or nearly so. Without it the mammals might never have dominated the fauna of the earth. The fact that we are here to think about it is the result of luck. The day before the asteroid hit, there was no predicting the event. Today, we can collect information about evolutionary trends and make good guesses about which way evolution will go for some species, but we cannot be certain. An unforseen event could throw off our prediction. We could get better at this, but right now our estimates are probabilistic.

If Gould was right that an event that could have such profound effects on the colossal scale of evolution was not predictable, then it is no great leap to think that a chance event, of which the conscious mind becomes aware, could wind up throwing the balance in a human being’s decision. This chance event would father a thought, and might even itself be a thought. A one-off thought perhaps. We would not call it a miracle or even an act of will, but it could mess up any predictions.

This is consistent with determinism, but it has a degree of freedom in that it suggests strongly that almost identical circumstances can produce quite different results.

Suppose I normally think benevolent thoughts. Consciously generated or unconsciously, any one of my thoughts is likely to be benevolent and could influence a decision I was considering. This decision probably would be received favorably by most of the people I know; they would think well of me.

However my thoughts are not 100% benevolent and a thought that was not benevolent could occur to me instead and influence my decision.

Learning about this not so nice decision, my friends and acquaintances might think less of me, and they would be right to wonder how I could behave so out of character.

No matter if part (or even most) of my decision-making process were unconscious, in these hypothetical model cases crucial thoughts were consciously perceived and wound up influencing my decision.

The decision would be approved or not by others, weighted by their expectations based on my past known behavior. And they might change their opinion of me as a result.

They might see my decision as the mechanistic outcome of real physical events, but they would be unlikely to think it completely predictable. Indeed, their surprise at my decision makes perfect sense from their point of view.

They might blame me for having chosen to do ill. Would they be morally justified? They could say, “You admit you consciously thought to deviate from your normal benevolent behavior and made this deplorable decision. In my book that is morally wrong. You deserve to be exposed to public criticism at the very least.” If I care what my friends think of me, I would at least reflect that perhaps I should have thought about their probable reaction before deciding. We all have in fact experienced regret at an action, even if only wishing we had modified it so that our friends would not find out!

What could this decision have been? Fill in the blank- perhaps a political betrayal or reversal, such as Romney’s different stances on mandatory health insurance, or a grave departure from a promise such as Johnson’s decision after the election of 1964 to send American boys in great numbers to war in Viet Nam.

Oh, you may argue, but this (or any) thought may come to the consciousness from subconscious processes. But in this example does the source of the idea excuse me, who allowed that thought to influence the decision? I do not know what most people would say here. Maybe this is a question for experimental philosophy.

The outcome of long deliberation might be more likely to have moral content than would simple choices like pressing buttons A or B. This is not typical dualism; I have neither invoked the supernatural nor quantum theory. I have invoked different conscious thoughts, originating consciously or not, which I guess occur to all of us, and I have pointed to a possibly significant difference between quick decisions and slow ones. Slow decisions are more likely to involve thoughts that are consciously perceived and potentially influential.

If subconscious processes can influence the conscious processes, then why not allow that the conscious processes can influence the subconscious? I seem to do something like this when I go to sleep, thinking of things I would like to dream about, for example, an old house I used to live in. The things I know I think about could very well influence the things I don’t know that I am thinking about. I believe that this is a testable hypothesis, but I do not know if anybody has done the experiments.

Thinking about the number of mistakes I make every day makes me very wary. I could be wrong or naïve here. I am pretty sure that I have not settled anything. But if lengthy decisions involve an interplay between conscious and subconscious processes, that might help explain the intuitive feeling of being in control of our minds.

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