Friday, September 21, 2007

Why Are We Conscious?

When I walk across campus, even across ridges and mudpuddles of the sort that frustrate robot designers, I unconsciously adjust my gait and balance to remain perfectly and efficiently balanced on a few dozen square inches of foot. Pretty sophisticated! Is there any pattern of behavior that couldn't be governed entirely by non-conscious processes like this, at least in principle? I can talk in my sleep. I can find myself reacting in sophisticated ways without prior conscious decision, and I can find myself making sophisticated judgments without prior conscious reasoning. Presumably, both the judgment and the reaction could be generated non-consciously one after the next, making conscious awareness a a fifth wheel that at most provides only permission to continue. Sometimes, it seems, this is how my wittiest jokes emerge, with consciousness barely more than an audience.

In designing our minds, natural selection presumably selected not for consciousness per se but only for behavioral tendencies, so how is it that we come to be conscious beings? Searle and others have suggested that consciousness is essential to creativity. But my automatic witticisms seem plenty creative. Dennett and Rosenthal and many others have suggested that consciousness has to do with self-knowledge -- that it's the mind's way of keeping track of itself or reflects the mind's taking itself as the object of its own processing. Yet the mind must keep track of itself in non-conscious ways, too -- for example in updating beliefs, in retrieving memories (and knowing whether to bother to try to retrieve a memory), in delegating tasks to different subsystems, and such processes are not always conscious.

These brief observations can't refute the sophisticated views of the philosophers mentioned, but I do wonder whether the evolutionary pressure generating consciousness (if there is such pressure) has really been adequately explained.

Thus, I found interesting Nick Humphrey's different type of explanation last week at the Consciousness and Experiential Psychology meeting in Oxford. Humphrey suggested that consciousness was selected not because it gives us any particular type of skill or reflects any special type of knowledge about ourselves or the world. Rather, he suggests, consciousness motivates us. It gives us joy in living and reason to exist. It makes death more poignant and life more holy. It imbues every waking second with significance. And for this reason, he says, we do things that we might not otherwise do -- though we could, conceivably, do them without consciousness. It makes us want to do them.

Humphreys suggests that the joie de vivre that comes with consciousness makes us more playful, more fearful of death, more enamored of art and poetry, more driven to explore and discover, than we otherwise would be -- and that evolution might well select for organisms so motivated. If, perhaps, this motivation could in principle come from some other source in non-conscious organisms (exploratory behavior could be genetically selected, for example), in fact in us it is consciousness that does the work.

I am intrigued by Humphrey's idea that consciousness might be selected not because it underwrites an ability but rather because it provides motivation. Yet I wonder if joie de vivre is indeed the normal state of conscious organisms as Humphrey supposes. Think, for example, of the Buddhist maxim that life is suffering (which seems to me overstated on the other side) and their goal of escaping it into the nothingness of nirvana.


Anonymous said...

Hi Eric:

I think Nick Humphrey is indeed onto something when he suggests that consciousness is closely linked to motivation. However Nick's implicit concept of motivation appears to put the thoughts, feelings and emotions in our respective streams of consciousness in charge of our behavior. Various types of meditative practices suggest an opposite goal: that our respective thoughts, feelings and emotions can eventually become objects of perception and consequently not necessarily motivate our behavior.

The evolutionary process linked to the above goal might then entail a dynamic where individuals will continue to have thoughts, feelings and emotions but these same thoughts, feelings and emotions will not have us.

I think the Buddhists might argue that the ultimate cause of our suffering is when we are completely capatured by our own thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Buddhism is a big tent and I'm not a specialist in it, but what you say, Jim, resonates with some of the things I've heard Buddhists and Buddhist-influenced people say.

You're suggesting something like the opposite of Humphrey's view, right? Instead of consciousness being a positive motivator, we should aim -- by noticing our stream of consciousness -- to distance ourselves from it in some way and thus limit its role in generating the sorts of behavior that lead to suffering. I do agree there's something appealing in that thought!

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

I think Humphrey´s suggestion that conciousness is a special kind of motivator derives from the fact that many brain events are not accompanied by concious events and that consciousness is not the cause of many of them nor behaviour as well, and in evolutionary terms consciousness come later than other mechanisms.

When we have master a skill, such as driving a car, we ussually do it without conscios effort. In this view consciousness, he hiphotesize, is like a glue to those sorts of behaviours that requires or demands in us an special interest becuase there are genuine or unique to organisms with high-order consciosness like art, poetry, communication with other conscious beings...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Anibal. Humphrey seems happy to attribute consciousness to all mammals, though -- which seems right to me. He bases this in part on their evident playfulness and joy in life, especially juveniles.

Although some things we learn without consciousness, I'm not sure that's the general rule. Your example of driving doesn't seem to me to work that way. I'd suggest, rather, that at first we are very much conscious of our activities when learning to drive and only later it becomes routinized and less conscious.

Anonymous said...


Your right Eric, I am suggesting something the opposite of Humphrey.

It strikes me that when we are gripped by an emotion (such as anger)we tend to ignore knowledge that doesn't fit the emotion--we rarely seek to challenge why we are feeling this particular way but instead seek out information to confirm our anger. We end up evaluating what is happening in a way that is consistent with the emotion thus justifying and maintaining it.

In many situations this may mean that the emotion which guides and focuses our attention can distort our ability to deal with new information perhaps already stored in the brain.

A meditative practice which results in a metaperspective on a particular negative emotion, like anger, would seem to be a genuine support to clearer thinking.

In addition, if methodologists, like yourself, can operationalize the meditative process you may
create a valuable reasearch tool for better undertanding consciousness.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

Should we understand you as sold on the idea of consciousness even as you're uncertain about its role in psychological evolution? On what grounds, then, would you differentiate between conscious and non-conscious processes?

Humphrey's explanation reminds me of the angelic propulsion theory of planetary motion. Of course, it remains an open question how well that theory explains why there are angels. One could, adapting your question, ask whether there are any planetary motions that couldn't be propelled by non-angelic forces, at least in principle.

I think it would be interesting to see how Humphrey's explanation meshes with supervenience theories of consciousness.

I'm not sure what sense it makes to say that we can be "captured" by our thoughts and feelings, or that subduing our "streams of consciousness" would free us from suffering. We are our thoughts and feelings, our streams of consciousness, yes no? Otherwise it would seem that the best form of meditation is suicide.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Jim and Badda!

Jim, I must confess that I myself have never had much patience for meditation or much felt its value personally. A brisk walk seems to do much more for me. But I feel strongly that there must be something to meditation and that it deserves a more central role in consciousness studies. Through the work of people like Thompson and Lutz, hopefully we'll see more progress on it. And yes, there's definitely the possibility that experienced meditators are much better informed about their stream of experience than ordinary naive introspectors!

Badda: Yep, I'm sold on consciousness, though I'm not sure what exactly its causal role (if any) is. I just open my eyes and have experience. (Or keep them closed and have experience!) I can't help it! I don't in the same way experience dendritic growth or early visual processing.

Are we our thoughts and feelings? Maybe. Yet there's a sense in which we can reflect on them as they occur that is sometimes metaphorically captured with the idea that we "distance" ourselves from them. It seems plausible that reflective distance on thoughts and feelings can give us a certain amount of (or different kind of) control over how and whether we act on them.

Anonymous said...


If it is possible to distance oneself from a powerful feeling (ie. begin observe it internally rather than automatically act on it) isn't it a least possible to hypothesize that our mind is more than thoughts and feelings?

Accepting that highly controversial assumption for a moment, one could then go a step further and hypothesize that there may be a distinction between mind and brain, with thoughts and feelings emerging and floating around in our stream of consciousness but being observed by the mind.

What one is then left with is an awareness that is more than thought and feeling. One does not subdue the internal stream of consciousness one simply begins to observe it. Much more fun than suicide.

Anonymous said...


It sounds like you were sold on the idea of consciousness long before it was ever pitched to you. I wonder about that, though, because it would seem to turn consciousness into an article of faith.

"I just open my eyes and have experience" sounds a lot like "I just listen and God speaks to me." To the latter statement one could also add, "I can't help it! I don't in the same way hear God or human speech." Such testimony is only compelling to the already-converted.


If your hypothesis were true I couldn't run with it without subordinating myself to its compelling force and to that extent falsifying it.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the unreliability of introspection could be likened to the unreliability of interpretation when God speaks to you personally.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Cute thought, Badda. I am inclined to think that we know for sure that we're conscious, even if we're surprisingly inaccurate about the contents -- quite different, in my view, from religious opinion!

You also know, I think, that you're indoors, near the surface of the Earth, etc. Maybe a skeptic could convince you you don't know, but it's a natural starting point. Same with consciousness; I'm not so sure about God....

Anonymous said...

Well, I suppose "cute" is better than "that's just ridiculous and the disanalogy isn't worth explaining."

So, okay, I will grant you all of those beliefs, the belief in consciousness and all the rest, understood dispositionally and forming a sort of discursive gestalt. I actually believe most of them myself! Or believe them in-betweenly. I do wonder, however, at what point belief becomes knowledge under a dispositional account of the former.

Thinking about all this sheds new light for me on how some Christians can tell me that I really do believe in God even if I myself deny it.

But anyway, back to Humphrey. I guess I stand by the angelic propulsion comparison I made earlier.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I'm going about my daily activities but I keep coming back to this.

Do I know for sure that I am conscious or do I just act as if I know in accordance with your own personal standard for counting certain dispositions as knowledge (as opposed to, say, religious opinion or, indeed, mechanical processes)?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

But what is it is "act as if" you know you're conscious? Maybe that's incredibly easy (e.g., you don't try to rouse yourself from dreamless slumber?) -- but I have a feeling you have something else in mind?

Appealing to a dispositional approach to belief, I'm more inclined to think that most religious people don't actually believe in God (i.e., don't act as though God exists) than I am to think that most atheists somehow deep down really do believe. Though, really, we're all probably pretty dispositionally mixed up in such matters.

Anonymous said...


Just a few brief responses to you last series of comments.

When formulating a hypothesis aren't we always, in some sense, subordinating outselves to its compelling force in the sense that the foundation for the hypothesis is uaually a combination of motives and reasons in the stream of consciousness of the experimenter. Henry Stapp puts in this way:

"An experimenter places a particle detector in a weak beam of particles. His action poses a question, which nature will answer "yes" or "no", according to whether the detector fires or not.
The Quantum Mechanic equations of motion do not determine excactly when and where the detector will be placed. In actual practice that choice is determined by the experimenter on the basis of his motives and reasons."

I don't know for sure that I am conscious but I just act as if I am because of the continued internal experience of effortful intention and subsequent experience of bodily action.

Call me uncertain about the fundamental issue but such
a hypothese/model makes our thoughts physically efficacious, therby giving them a reason to exist and a capacity to evolve in a way that will enhance our chances of survival.

Anonymous said...

On acting as if I know -- maybe if you substitute 'believe' for 'know' my meaning will be clearer. It amounts to the same thing as far as I'm concerned, the difference being only that knowledge refers to a specially sanctioned belief -- and you do sanction the belief in consciousness or having experience, yes no? Hence you call that belief knowledge rather than mere opinion.

So: you're inclined to think that we know for sure that we are conscious. In other words, you think we all meet the dispositional stereotype of someone who believes of oneself that one is conscious. Nay, we do in fact meet your dispositional stereotype of such a person. But aside from pointing that out, you go a step further and call that belief knowledge, which is just a back-door reification of its object, i.e. consciousness.

This is precisely what Christians do when they tell us that we really do know in our hearts that God exists. We meet their dispositional stereotype of someone who believes in God. But their dispositional stereotype is not our dispositional stereotype. So of course we're inclined to think differently.

Anonymous said...

Hi Badda

i call my "knowledge" of consciousness provisional. I am not as certain of consciousness as you appear to be of your skepticism.

I'm also a skeptic but in order for such a perspective not to become a glaring contradiction I also tend to be partial to a generalized agnosticism.

Such an agnosticism lowers the epistemological stakes and at least lays the groundwork for some kind of personal contentment.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,

I'm not sure that I would call myself a skeptic. I do believe in consciousness, dispositionally speaking. Eric would say that I know that I am conscious, which I think simply means that he endorses a certain dispositional stereotype, that of the consciousness believer. Not only that, but he does so irrespective of whether the believer himself also endorses that stereotype. I'm not sure that there is anything wrong with this. I do think it might be good for him to know that he is doing this, though. I suppose it could have rather humbling effect on consciousness studies in general.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting point, Badda. I do think that the ascriber gets the privilege here, in determining the stereotype. To take an extreme case, consider ascribing beliefs to infants or non-human animals. Most (not all) philosophers seem willing to do this. But of course infants and non-human animals won't accept any stereotype, right?

Anonymous said...

I think that you are probably correct, de facto if not de jure. And I think that, as a dispositionalist, whether it's appropriate or not to ascribe beliefs in such cases should depend on one's dispositional stereotype with respect to what a belief is. So I think that it's philosophically trivial that some philosophers (and other creatures) are willing to make those ascriptions and others are not. The relative importance is more, shall we say, political? Such, at least, is testified by our own reactions to Christians who exercise the same privilege when they say that we really do believe in God.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, the politics is not irrelevant -- and pragmatic factors more broadly! I don't think we're trucking in a priori metaphysical facts here but rather decisions about how it's most useful to think about and classify things.

Anonymous said...

Fist of all this is probably one of the toughest questions in science and philosophy today. Nothing is more complex then the human brain and despite our knowledge of squid neurons we are baffled when it comes to the emergent properties of mind and consciousness.

Because I am a man and still baffled by women I think consciousness in some way is linked to the hidden ovulation of females combined with the evolutionary costs of a narrow pelvis creating high stakes birth. Men wanted sex, women did not want themselves or their infants to die. Birth was dangerous and often fatal. Consciousness evolved as a way to better navigate these unique sexual waters.