I confess. I am, at heart, a technical writer — my objective is a lucid presentation of ideas.
This is a departure. This is a rant.
That feels a bit wrong…but it has allowed me to connect my callow young grumpiness with the seasoned grumpiness I’ve achieved over time. So…
Slowly I turned
The last decade has seen a recrudescence of the idea that consciousness, conscious thought, and considered choice have no real impact on behavior and may not even exist.
Godin likens ‘consciousness choice’ to a play-by-play announcer commenting on pre-existing events.
Here’s a recent example of that sort of thing from the estimable Seth Godin.
Seth states in answer to a listener’s question:
- Behavior is caused “at a base chemical level much quicker than we come up with a narrative…. We’re already doing something, and then only after that fact do we come up with a narrative.”
- Consciousness is “a noise in our heads.”
- We can’t tell if anyone else has the same noise in their head…and “if we can’t tell, then it doesn’t even matter.”
- “Leaders in the area philosophy of mind” argue that the noise in our head is not causative but “just a historical artifact.”
- Godin likens it to a play-by-play announcer commenting on pre-existing events.
- He elaborates to say that it’s possible to demonstrate this using MRI scanning and some “thoughtful mind experiments.”
- He speculates that “this evolved over time in that human beings talked to themselves… and then our brains evolved to the point where we could talk to ourselves without talking out loud, and that language leads to this notion that we have a little man or a little woman in our head who’s telling us what to do — but we don’t.”
Sigh. Where to start?
Oh yeah, let’s start with B. F. Skinner and jump back to the state of academic psychology in the ’70s…when I was first subjected to it.
There were outposts of Humanistic, Psychoanalytic, or Transpersonal Psychology, but the cornerstone of American psychology was Behaviorism (Skinner’s baby) and Operant Conditioning. For these schools, consciousness was not only irrelevant but probably didn’t exist!
Skinner asks us to believe that our energy-intensive consciousness emerged and has been sustained as a meaningless free-rider.
Skinner, in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, achieves peak nonsense. He makes a two-part claim: 1) to make progress in the biological sciences we had to withdraw the projection of personhood from the natural world, ie, stop the animist tendency to make trees, grottos, hills, and rock formations into beings, and therefore 2) we can now only make progress in psychology by withdrawing the projection of personhood from persons!
Was this guy even listening to himself?
(We are, to Skinner, a collection of behaviors conditioned by the mix of rewards and punishments provided by our environment.)
The trigger for all this was logical positivism. The core thesis is that only statements verifiable through direct, measurable observation are meaningful.
Okay, that’s extremely useful as a rule of thumb if not over-generalized.
Logical positivism notwithstanding, microorganisms did, in fact, exist before the invention of the microscope allowed them to be detected. Similarly, the benefits of meditation didn’t pop into existence with MRI devices.
In my opinion, if you’re fishing with a 2-inch mesh net and conclude that small fish don’t, and in fact can’t, exist because you’ve never detected one, you’re being willfully ignorant.
Brain activity is a calorie hog. Likely we needed to evolve both hunting and fire to generate enough calories for our brains to evolve to their current size. Yet, Skinner asks us to believe that our energy-intensive consciousness emerged and has been sustained as a meaningless free-rider.
Behaviorism became Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
What happened to old Fred Skinner?
His therapy proved to have significant shortcomings because, as one of Skinner’s contemporaries put it, “it doesn’t allow you to get inside people’s heads.”
Behaviorism was replaced by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — the current gold standard for evidence-based therapy.
Here’s a definition from the Mayo Clinic.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common type of talk therapy (psychotherapy). You work with a mental health counselor (psychotherapist or therapist) in a structured way, attending a limited number of sessions. CBT helps you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way.
Note what’s added back into the therapeutic mix — conscious story-telling replacing the unconscious destructive narratives that can trap us into sub-optimal or even destructive behavior.
CBT evolved from the shortcomings of pure conscious-ignoring behavioral therapy.
It’s an irony that many folks claiming that conscious thought has no impact manage to navigate graduate programs and academic careers.
Game playing is a second case where the claim that ‘conscious thought is epiphenomenal’ theory comes up glaringly short.
I play games with a regular group of irregulars every week or so. We tend to like complex ‘Euros Strategy’ games. Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride are a few of the starter games in the genre.
My moves are generally impulse-based. I can improve my performance by taking the time to systematically review the relevant factors, and some part of me has to be projecting out beyond a single move — but, with rare exceptions, my next move isn’t a conscious calculation.
On the other hand, some players will systematically work out the best path forward. They sit there and actually think. (Is that legal?) I’ve even seen someone make a few notes on paper when the situation was particularly complex.
When someone tries to get them moving a bit faster, they claim to be thinking. Knowing them to be fundamentally honest people, this is likely to be true.
It’s even likely their move is a direct result of the thinking!
It’s an irony that many folks claiming that conscious thought has no impact manage to navigate graduate programs and academic careers. That takes some high-level game playing.
Even animals may engage in a type of ‘pre-move’ analysis. I remember Bernd Heinrich in Mind of the Raven commenting on this. Octopuses may do something similar. (See comment near 1:10.)
End of Part 1
Part 1 here, relates why I think the discounting consciousness is wrong as in misguided.
Also, see Free Will Considered As Three Lunches (V2).