The Role of Consciousness - Teflon® Weltanschauung
May. 24th, 2010
12:49 pm - The Role of Consciousness
Some years ago I read Consciousness Explained by Dennett. An interesting read, though the title is more than misleading. In that work, an experiment was mentioned which indicated that our minds decide actions prior to our awareness of them. I found the experiment quite fascinating.
That book heavily influenced my own pet theory of consciousness. Not being a real philosopher, not being a psychologist, not being anything but some random schmoe, I never really talked about theories of mind, which I found to be somewhat empirical in nature. But just because I didn't share my ideas doesn't mean I didn't have them.
Roughly, my picture of consciousness is that of a feedback system. Consciousness is linked to perception and memory, and its role is, basically, to decide what is important to note for the future. That is to say, it's kind of a memory manager. It decides what to remember, which is later used by the unconscious mind to make decisions.
I am sure consciousness has a larger role than this, but I think this is the core function. In reading some works on perception, a relatively recent paper that clarifies unconscious decision-making, and a book by a psychologist that made some interesting observations on conscious activity, I am prepared to propose not only why consciousness is largely limited to this, but why it seems like it is not.
The most interesting aspect of consciousness, to me, is why it seems to be so vast and all-encompassing, when reflection on conscious activity reveals that consciousness is almost entirely superfluous. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Jaynes made a very curious analogy. He said that when we try to determine what consciousness is, we should be wary because it is impossible to determine what we are not conscious of, simply because we are not conscious of it. He then said it was like (here's the analogy) asking a flashlight in a dark room to determine what was lit up. Everywhere the flashlight looked, the object was illuminated, so it would be forced to conclude that the entire room was lit up. This metaphor is extremely compelling.
Metaphors in general are extremely compelling. The amount of metaphors woven into our concepts are startling. I think that this is because the conscious mind, though capable of dealing with more abstract thoughts, must ultimately inform the unconscious mind of what is important. The unconscious mind is not capable of such abstraction. Therefore the only tool the conscious mind has to build on is metaphor, in a kind of auto-conditioning. Y is X, metaphorically, so treat it so. And Z is like Y, metaphorically, so treat it so. The power of symbolism, analogy, simile, and metaphor is that it directly relates to the mind's own form of feedback. Metaphor is the language of the unconscious mind. In dealing with metaphors, we in some sense bypass the conscious mind. The conscious mind feels the need to interpret metaphors, but the symbolism often just strikes us. Metaphors are like the modern equivalent of mystery school religions.
It is tempting to call consciousness a filter, but I think that is inappropriate. How sensations are mediated to the unconscious mind is a different issue. Consciousness's role, again, is primarily as a feedback mechanism. The sticky part here is that feedback presumes a goal, and it is an open question to me to what extent goal-definition is an aspect of consciousness. Does the unconscious mind direct all goal-definition and inform consciousness of which goals are important? Does the conscious mind share in goal-definition? It is always tempting to relegate mental activity to consciousness because we always appear to be deciding. But awareness of goal-definitions should not be mistaken for the act of defining itself. And this is part of the problem. As a feedback system, consciousness would have access to a great deal of unconscious mental activity and sensatory input. I can be aware that I am driving a car, but I can drive without conscious awareness.
Imagine you are being introduced to a new game. You read the rules, or have them explained to you. Here is an unconscious goal: I want to play; consciousness: well, then, here's a game. Or maybe it is just, consciouness: I want to play, here is a game; unconsciousness: ok. I can tell a million stories like it, with varying degrees of participation by either of the two minds. And this is also a problem with introspecting. Consciousness loves to tell stories. Well-known are experiments where consciousness creates seemingly rational explanations for behavior which, as third party observers, we know are actually rationalizations. So each time I tell myself a story about the interplay between consciousness and unconsciousness, I wish to find a way to distinguish between a rational deduction and a rationalized narration used to explain events present to the conscious mind. But I find none.
I don't recall the name of the original study. Apart from the book mentioned above, I am also referencing "Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain" by Soon, Brass, Heinze, and Haynes; Nature Neuroscience, May 2008. Paywalled, but interested parties should be able to dig up a PDF from google without much trouble.