Day by day with eyes wide shut (What if our conscious reasoning is an afterthought?)

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by Neil Godfrey

Until its proved otherwise, why not assume that consciousness does not play a significant role in human behavior? Although the idea might seem radical at first, it is actually the conservative position, the one that makes the fewest assumptions. The null position is an antidote to philosophers’ disease — the inappropriate attribution of rational, conscious control over processes that may be irrational and unconscious. The argument is not that we lack consciousness but that we overestimate the conscious control of behavior. — Robert R. Provine, p. 147 in What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers On Science in the Age of Uncertainty, 2006.

Robert R. Provine is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. And I am sharing his little spiel in the book What We Believe But Cannot Prove because he expresses an idea that I have toyed with ever since I learned of those experiments testing half-brain functions that show that people really do quite sincerely and unknowingly fabricate false reasons for why thy make certain decisions. But needless to say, I’m sure, not a few people are quite disturbed whenever I even raise the possibility. So I have learned to keep my suspicions closer to my chest but here in this post I bare all with the encouragement of a leading thinker under the title “things we believe but cannot prove.”

Provine continues:

We are misled by an inner voice that generates a reasonable but often fallacious narrative and explanation of our actions. That the beam of conscious awareness illuminating our actions is on only part of the time further complicates our task. Since we are not conscious of our state of unconsciousness, we vastly overestimate the amount of time that we are aware of our actions, whatever their cause.

Robert Provine’s thoughts about unconscious control, unlike my amateur cogitations, were shaped by his field studies of “the primitive play-vocalization of laughter.” He found that when he asked people why they laughed in certain situations the answers they gave, he could demonstrate through careful observations, were wrong. They merely concocted rationalizations for their behaviour.

RP also notes that many of his subjects incorrectly presumed that laughter was something that was done by choice, that it was something that was governed by conscious control. They were always absolutely confident of the explanations they gave for their behaviour. But laughter is not like that at all. When challenged on command most people cannot utter a genuine laugh. Laughter also happens in synch with those places in speech where there would be normal written punctuation (a natural pause, for example).

This punctuation effect is highly reliable and requires the coordination of laughing with the linguistic structure of speech, yet it is performed without the conscious awareness of the speaker. Other airway maneuvers, such as breathing and coughing, also punctuate speech (i.e. the break in where there would normally be a full stop, a comma, etc.) and are performed without speaker awareness. (p. 148)

From laughter to all our other behaviours

The discovery of structured but unconsciously controlled laughter produced by people who could not accurately explain their actions led me to consider generalizing this situation to other kinds of behavior. Do we go through life listening to an inner voice that provides similar confabulations about the causes or our actions? Are essential details of the neurological process that governs human behavior inaccessible to introspection? Can the question of animal consciousness be stood on its head and treated in a more parsimonious manner? Instead of wondering whether other animals are conscious, or have a different, or lesser consciousness than ours, should we be wondering whether our behavior is under no more conscious control than theirs? (my emphasis, pp. 148-49)

Provine reminds us that other social animals can achieve quite a lot materially without having conscious control of their actions, or at least very little apparent control: bees, ants, termites.

Is intelligent behavior a sign of conscious control? What kinds of tasks require consciousness? Answering these questions requires an often counterintuitive approach to the role, evolution, and development of consciousness.

I would go one or two tiny steps further, or at least lean to other facets of this (currently) unprovable thought, and ask: What function did the evolution of consciousness serve? What implications would a conscious awareness of this, if it were provably true, this have for legal systems and social functioning and ethics generally? There are also many other moments when I look back on my actions and those with whom I engage and I cannot help but sometimes raise that abductive query — are we really only rationalizing ad hoc what we do and say?

Maybe this is a question that is asked too soon to attract research grants. Let’s see where we are in another generation or two.

Now if you asked these cheetahs why they ran down this impala only to realize they weren’t hungry after all and took time to marvel how cute it was before letting it go . . . . how would they have explained their actions?

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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “Day by day with eyes wide shut (What if our conscious reasoning is an afterthought?)”

  1. It’s easy to show empirically that this false attribution of consciousness takes place regularly. After a sporting event the game’s star will frequently be interviewed about an important play that changed the course of the game and he will frequently give a long disquisition on the exact thoughts that led him to act as he did, however the replay will show that the events took place over a timespan that is not possible for conscious thought to control (heading a fast moving ball, hitting a ball, etc). Yet this is the experience of any player, they believe they made a good or bad decision when in reality it was their unconscious modules of behavior that succeeded or failed.

    1. But he consciously trained his unconscious to do that. Just like the police officer has to consciously train his gun hand not to unconsciously grab the gun and shoot people. Just like the righteous man has consciously trained his unconscious not to have sex with his neighbor’s wife. The unconscious does what the conscious trained it to do.

  2. We probably need a better definition of “conscious”. There are a lot of things that we do “unconsciously”, but at the same time we wouldn’t do those things unless we were aware of our surroundings. The thing that interests me when it comes to religion is the feeling of certainty. This is also not a conscious act but colors just about everything we do.

      1. The more I have been thinking about this again the more I think I need to be careful to stick to the basics in any discussion. “Conscious” certainly means “awake and aware”. But do I mean “self-conscious/ self consciousness”– and awake and registering “what”, exactly? This is why I found Susan Greenfield’s “The Private Life of the Brain” so captivating. She explores the oh-so-many levels and variations of “conscious” and “consciousness” through chemical alterations, biological rhythms, psychological maturation . . . . .

        1. This is a start. Pay attention to what happens and what you do when you wake up in the morning. You are conscious again, awake, and that’s what happens. But you are self-conscious when you are aware that you are awake–that’s what you do.

  3. What I still find fascinating is that mammals and birds do the same things we do — individuals sacrifice themselves to care for loved ones, they mourn lost loved ones, they work as teams with individuals each performing a separate role for the collective good, they have moral codes and administer punishments on those who break the rules, they play, have feelings of jealousy and pride and all the rest — all without language. And body and tonal (non-verbal) language conveys a bulk of meanings and communications among us.

    Does this lend weight to those who propose that language evolved first from singing or for the purposes of strengthening social cohesion (i.e. for gossip!) Is the consciousness fed by language not so much a stimulus for our actions but just one more tool with which we can act and create — just like the peacock’s feathers or the panda’s thumb?

    Maybe my questions about ethical implications are beside the point and there would be no ethical implications at all — only a different understanding of how everything works.

  4. I think it is much more complicated than that. Specifying things as either “conscious” or “unconscious” is limiting the proper explanation of what is happening. Here are some different examples.

    1. Breathing, heart pumping, working liver, and kidneys are all truly unconscious activities. We have no control over these, and we generally can not stop our hearts from beating with conscious thought even if we wanted to.

    2. The movement of our body parts i.e. hands, arms, legs, etc., we had to learn how to use them with conscious thought. For example, we had to learn how to walk, but after we mastered the art of walking, it gets transferred to something like an unconscious sub-routine. So when we consciously say to ourselves, “I want to go to the kitchen and get some coffee,” the brain sends a call to the walking sub-routine and that part is now done without any conscious thought. That would explain why some people who have a slightly strange way of walking, repeat it every time they walk, that’s how they learned and that’s what was stored in the sub-routine. If an adult wants to learn how to play the piano, they have to consciously learn how to properly move their fingers and when they practice enough, they will create sub-routines that will end up being their style of playing the piano.

    3. Laughing is an emotional response, and in the case of laughing, it is usually cause by combining thoughts or ideas that are out of the ordinary. And by “ordinary” I mean what a person has stored away as a sub-routine of how things should be. For example, most people usually think and store away the idea that cats and dogs oppose each other. And when some people see a dog wearing a cat costume, it messes with their preconceived notions causing it to be funny to some people.

    Therefore, I think most peoples behavior is governed by these unconscious thoughts. But I think “thoughts” in this contexts is not the right word. The word “thoughts” usually convey something dynamic, but as I said, I think most of these unconscious “thoughts” are fixed sub-routines that do not change easily. Therefore, on a larger scale, when we deal with people on a daily basis, our conscious thoughts are constantly accessing these fixed preconceived ideas or subroutines to manifest our conscious thoughts and actions.

    Just some ideas…

  5. I think the following is not considered too far-fetched and too removed from the subject of our discussion. I personally think it is intrinsically related to the problems of unconsciousness, religious belief, and reason.

    We seem to assume a duality between two modes of behavior and their mental/neural aspects: conscious and unconscious. But perhaps the two modes are more intimately related, and “consciousness” appears as a result of very unconscious factors.
 So it may be more appropriate to show that we do not have two neural natures but one, only styles of behavior and reactions in the same integrated “nature”. We are simply isolating different brain phenomena.

    – One is “fast thinking” (faith, beliefs, biases, prejudices, habits, reflex reactions, all types of unconscious behaviors, etc..)
    – and the other “slow thinking” (analysis, evaluation of evidence, construction of theories, etc…), in short conscious and critical thinking. Consciousness is just one aspect of our behavior.
    This is developed in “THINKING, FAST AND SLOW,” by Daniel Kahneman, (Oct. 2011)
    Amazon.com: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

    Daniel Kahneman is a modern psychologist specializing in the field of judgment and decision-making. He got the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics. 

    His work resulted in getting rid of the thesis that there are separate and different systems or structures of thinking in the brain: childish vs mature, emotional vs analytical, spiritual vs practical. Those are only different levels and modes of activity of the same system in the brain.

    “Fast” thinking uses immediate, well-known knowledge, habits, routine skills, immediate beliefs from childhood or personal experience, intuitions, etc…what we tend to call “instinctive,” “childish,” “emotional,” “unconscious”. Our illusions and superstitions grow in this mode.
    “Slow” thinking involves a pause in the flow of unconscious behaviors. It initiates the hard work of reflection, comparison, analysis, inference, choice, what we may call “mature”, “willful,” “conscious”.

    One is immediate and a prompt reaction to the environment. The other requires making a pause and process the information more slowly. The two modes are always at work together in the brain, with various levels of intensity.
It looks as if religious beliefs belong to the “fast thinking” process of the brain, while analysis and examination of evidence is indubitably (excruciatingly) ” slow thinking”.
An adult can use his brain analytically on some issues and still use a huge quantity of responses based on “fast” thinking, unconscious motivations, including his/her religious beliefs from childhood.

    This probably was the innovation discovered and taught by Socrates and the ancient Greeks. Hey, let’s stop for a second and think…Consciousness leads to what we now call critical thinking, requiring hard and tiring mental work that most ordinary uneducated or untrained people are entirely incapable of.
    The wonderful thing about the old gods is that they let you live in a comfortable routine without asking for or making trouble. The “old gods” for the average Christian are the comfortable dogmas inculcated in childhood and never seriously questioned.


In any event Kahneman and his book get us to start thinking about the factors of decision-making: “unconscious” and “conscious”, “faith” and “reason”, “childish” and “mature” opposites in a modern scientific way, as belonging to the same brain system, and no longer in terms of antiquated notions of “two natures”, or two “systems”.

    Wikipedia has also an excellent article on Kahneman,

    Also his Nobel Prize autobiography is an exciting description of his psychological work.

    His Nobel Prize lecture on “intuitive Judgment and Choice” has been revised for this article:

    You’ll find excellent reviews of Daniel Kahneman’s work on the Web.

  6. Fits with the Samkhya view that consciousness is just the witness to the thinking that the brain does.
    A problem with this sort of epiphenomenalism is the it suggests that consciousness has no effect on the thinking brain. But if it has no effect, the brain gets no information about consciousness. The brain is not even informed that consciousness exists. This means that the brain cannot think about consciousness. But I’m thinking about consciousness right now.

    1. I think the ambiguity results from equating “consciousness” with “thinking”. A lot of confusion results from assuming they are the same brain events.
      Consciousness is a feeling within the brain about what’s happening, linked to the feeling of the body, the emotions and the self. “Thinking” is an activity of the brain related to many inputs, including from the unconscious. Cogitation requires a neuronal effort. Consciousness can be activated without “thinking”, “thinking” gets activated as a mental effort with internal representation, images, language and memory.

      See Antonio Damasio, and his books “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain” (1994) and “The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness,” (2001).


      1. No ambiguity in Samkhya. The Samkhya position (and that of most other forms of epiphenomenalism) is that thinking is a physical process. It includes information processing, decision making, controlling the body, remembering, running emotions (though not “feeling” them) and all the other activiites of the mind. Conciousness is the awareness of some of these processes. It is not itself a physical process. If it has spatial location, it may be located in the brain.

        There is a lot to be said in favour of the Samkhya view, but as far as I can tell it succumbs to the general argument against epiphenomenalism that I presented above.

  7. A different view of consciousness and one that has appealed to me is described by Susan Greenfield, The Private Life of the Brain. There may be google versions or reviews — or an inexpensive copy via bookfinder.com

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