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The Problem with Consciousness

Our cognition fools us into thinking we’re in charge

I’m on a mission — one that flies in the face of so-called intuition and common sense. My mission is to describe how our human consciousness, our higher-order cognition, doesn’t work the way we think it does. We believe — more than that — we know our day-to-day consciousness enables us to perceive our environment, dictates how we make decisions and how we respond to situations. We all feel that without our consciousness, we wouldn’t be able to function. We would be like a body without bones, just a flaccid blob of inaction.

However, in a blow to our most fervently-held convictions, science has shown that our consciousness doesn’t actually work as if it’s the homunculus in charge, the tiny person inside our head controlling and dictating our life. While the evidence for this is rather overwhelming, I only want to introduce the idea here. What follows is just a bare-bones summary of findings from decades of recent neuroscience and psychology research. Going forward I will flesh out many aspects of these assertions and examine the scientific research that leads to these conclusions.

In their paper, Conscious thought is for facilitating social and cultural interactions: How mental simulations serve the animal-culture interface, Professors of Psychology Roy Baumeister and E.J. Masicampo at Florida State University summarize our common misconceptions about consciousness. In the section Five Criticisms of Conscious Thought, they describe how consciousness misguides and deludes us.

1. Conscious introspection of one’s own behavior is sometimes wrong or false. People tend to borrow from group beliefs, and those beliefs may have little to do with actual events. People easily convince themselves of the truth of untrue causes, which are often based on the prevailing zeitgeist — social expectations, for example.
2. Conscious thought produces false explanations to integrate information about the world. Conscious explanations of external events are often wrong. Consciousness is undermined by inaccurate conclusions.
3. Consciousness is latent or tardy in the flow of time. Studies show brain activation for an action starts significantly before conscious awareness of the intention to act. Consciousness is incapable of real-time interaction and is always slightly behind the moment, and thus unable to dictate behavior in close-to-synchronous fashion.
4. Consciousness is not the initiator of actions. Conscious thought is dispensable. Nonconscious, automatic processes, with or without the involvement of consciousness, are the real initiators, but, of course, if they are nonconscious, they are imperceptible. How would you know?
5. Consciousness assigns itself the role of activator when it is not. Consciousness is more of an easily fooled spectator than a participant. Our sense of our volition is a deceitful trick of consciousness, and we are mistaken about the conscious self intentionally inciting actions.

This is difficult for many to accept, but much of what we think we know is wrong. But this doesn’t mean that you are going to be thrown off kilter, that everything will be torn away from you in a world-upending tsunami. In fact, nothing changes. We remain exactly who we are. We continue to live and exist how we have been all along. It’s just that our knowledge and understanding of how we live changes. We must face the fact that our conscious motivation, and all we attribute to it, is not what we think it is. For the most part we are ignorant of our own motivations and causes.

However, from experience I can tell you how this is going to be received, and it isn’t well. People of all stripes resist this interpretation of human consciousness because it threatens credos they hold near and dear. Humans are invested in all kinds of beliefs including religious beliefs, political beliefs, social beliefs, even scientific beliefs. For many religious people who adhere to Judeo-Christian dogma, humans are born with original sin. Religion for these folks is an effort overcome this inherent sin and become worthy of heaven or redemption through their relationship with God. In practical terms this means adhering to Biblical and Torah law, the Ten Commandments being notable. Theists can only achieve redemption if they follow a conscious path they are told. Take that conscious option away and overcoming one’s sinful ways, a basic tenet of monotheism, is undermined. Except I’m not suggesting taking consciousness away, only that it isn’t consciousness that provides their path to the divine.

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Humanists, atheists and agnostics effectively subscribe to the Ten Commandments without the dogmatic, religious indoctrination because, despite the beliefs of many of the religiously devout, morality is an innate property of the human being. Morality is not something acquired through religion. Non-religious folks share the tacit assumption that humans are capable of achieving a noble state, that they can modify their behavior to not steal, not lie, not disrespect their parents, and not covet another’s possessions or inappropriately covet a person of the preferred gender, and, of course, not murder. And that’s just for starters. Translating this into modern liberal jargon results in don’t be racist, sexist, ageist, or homophobic. Don’t discriminate based on color, creed, religion, or sexual orientation. More than even the religionists, humanists are dedicated to achieving a higher or nobler state of being and don’t want to be faced with the possibility that human consciousness is not amenable to achieving such modifications and improvements. The wonderful irony here is that the non-religious are generally far more science savvy, and yet can be just as recalcitrant when the neuro-psychobiology contradicts their most fervent beliefs.

This situation is based on the philosophy of dualism — that the mind and body are separate entities that operate independently. Most of humanity, regardless of conviction, embraces dualist thinking. This is another defining characteristic of Homo sapiens, and this explains why there is so much resistance to relinquishing belief in the all-powerful consciousness. The self-aware human mind is perceived as an exclusive feature, untethered from our biological roots, far superior and qualitatively different than the cognition of other animals. And it is, sort of, but whatever that difference is isn’t so much due to what we generally consider to be our higher-order consciousness. In reality, standard human cognition is primarily driven by cognitive biases and emotionally-based heuristics. People will rationalize to make the evidence and observations align with their existing beliefs and prejudices.

Nevertheless, there is a subset of people who are already predisposed to seeing humans as animals first and foremost. They understand that mind and body are integrated, interdependent and not separate entities. These people are far more likely to accept the science that human consciousness is relatively impotent.

“Human consciousness is as much of a problem as it is a boon.”

One direction I take regarding this conception of consciousness is in a two-part article about the increasing popularity of meditation, mindfulness and yoga. It describes how humans employ these ancient ritual practices to compensate for the downsides of consciousness — not only that consciousness is ineffective, but also that human consciousness is as much of a problem as it is a boon.

There is an inherent paradox trying to explain that people’s consciousness is mostly ineffective and illusory. Some have pointed out that, if this is true, then my consciousness is similarly flawed, that I have biases and false beliefs, too. That is so true, but I’m not creating this from whole cloth. I didn’t just make this up because I have an axe to grind (even though I do). I rely on the scientific community to inform this argument. A plethora of evidence supports these five points above, and I will be discussing this science going forward. When the going gets tough, the doubters then have the task of deciding if they are science deniers, or if they are able to adjust their beliefs to accommodate the evidence.

Don’t like where this is going? Show me the science that contradicts it. And my boast is not to suggest that there isn’t such evidence. The human brain is one of the last frontiers of science, and good scientists can disagree about the results from the many studies investigating human consciousness. But there are a slew of popular books summarizing the research that call the efficacy of human consciousness into question. Some of my favorite authors in this arena are V.S. Ramachandran, Antonio Damasio, Michael Gazzaniga, Timothy D. Wilson, Daniel Wegner, and Dan Ariely to name a few. The combined weight of these and other scholars provides a solid structure for a revised understanding of human consciousness. Are you in or out?

V.S. Ramachandran

Your conscious life, in short, is nothing but an elaborate post-hoc rationalization of things you do for other reasons.
V.S. Ramachandran in A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness

For insight into how ritual and spirituality — the personal experiences of religion — serve to balance or compensate for the downsides of human consciousness, read the first chapter of my book, Darwin’s Apple: The Evolutionary Biology of Religion.

Baumeister, Roy F. and Masicampo, E.J. (2010). Conscious thought is for facilitating social and cultural interactions: How mental simulations serve the animal-culture interface. Psychological Review, 117(3), 945–971.

Author of Darwin’s Apple: The Evolutionary Biology of Religion, a new take on the function and purpose of religion.

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