Science, apparent nonsense, and the gift of conciousness.

I apologize to the authors of the journal article interacted with in case I have characterized their work falsely in anyway.

The Science
Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist, has written a great deal about several topics (social exclusion, masculinity, eros, will power, etc). He co-wrote an article about consciousness titled, “Conscious thought does not guide moment-to-moment actions–it serves social and cultural functions.”* The title is essentially the conclusion, which I have included below:

The findings suggest that conscious thought affects behavior indirectly, by integrating information across time and from culture, so that multiple alternative behaviors—particularly socially adaptive ones—can be considered and an optimal action selected.

We conclude that most or all of human behavior is likely a product of conscious and unconscious processes working together. The private daydreams, fantasies, and counterfactual thoughts that pervade everyday life are far from being a feckless epiphenomenon. We see these processes as the place where the unconscious mind assembles ideas so as to reach new conclusions about how best to behave, or what outcomes to pursue or avoid. Rather than directly controlling action, conscious thought provides the input from these kinds of mental simulations to the executive. Conscious thought offers insights about the past and future, socially shared information, and cultural rules. Without it, the complex forms of social and cultural coordination that define human life would not be possible. (p, 45)

The Apparent Nonsense

What this means is that, rather than being a mechanism for governing what I am doing right now, my consciousness is actually a mechanism for helping me determine how to act within my culture and without it, I would not only not be able to take part in my culture, but there would be no human culture. The problem with this conclusion is that it is precisely a restatement of what consciousness is in everybody’s experience. In this respect it is like saying, “after our research, we determined that rain is not so much water falling from the sky as it is the result of water evaporating and then condensing in the presence of specific pressure, vapor density, and temperature.” Most people do, indeed consciously sort out human culture. Defining consciousness solely in these terms though requires that culture be logically prior to consciousness. But, as far as I can tell, culture is created by consciousness except in the most basic forms (ant colonies).

Here’s why I only called the conclusion apparent nonsense. In the context of modern social psychology, such obvious conclusions probably do need to be argued for, explained, and repeated. We do live in an age when consciousness is thought to be explained thoroughly by Daniel Dennett, after all.

The Gift of Consciousness

One of the most bizarre things if you would just take a moment to think about it is this: the majority of the matter around you right now is not conscious. It has no idea what is happening and neither do you. I remember when Richard Dawkins would  talk about the “ubiquitous weirdness of the Bible.” Sure, any ancient collection of books will be weird. But, it is perhaps weirder that I, or you for that matter, are thinking about and experiencing anything at all. Even in the context of Freudian thought, the Ego, Super Ego, and Id are still part of the one experience of consciousness. This is so strange.

I can think about, not only of the thoughts of Baumeister (who wrote the article I read), but I can think about my thinking about them as I write about my thinking about them. You can too! But, weirdly enough, my thoughts are still not reducible to your own or his own. Just because I read those letters does not mean I understood  them aright (I think I did) or that I had the same brain states as the author(s) or other readers.

The conscious mind is, despite metaphors to the contrary, utterly unlike a computer (which runs off of software created by conscious minds and does so in the exact same way under the same conditions every, single, time). Consciousness, in an undeveloped Christian view, is a gift. In this respect, you are not only utterly unlike a computer but you are, because your consciousness is unique to you, utterly distinct from every other human (though you’re exactly human just like they are).  Two computers with the same software and the same input are distinct computers, but they are running exactly the same way. Twin humans, as similar as they are, despite nearly identical upbringing, have entirely unique consciousnesses. Changing out the hard drives of the two computers would change nothing except serial numbers. Changing out the consciousnesses of two twins is inconceivable precisely because their conscious experience is utterly distinct.

We possess the gift of consciousness. From a Christian perspective, God is, in a manner of speaking an infinite act of consciousness. Any matter which has consciousness, in that respect, participates in God (just like matter which has beauty, being, knowledge, or goodness).** That being said, Baumeister’s comments on what functions consciousness has in human well being are telling (numeration of paragraphs is my own):

  1. We propose that conscious thought is particularly useful for allowing people to consider multiple possible actions or outcomes. This is evident in counterfactual thinking. People often cannot help but reflect on how they might have behaved differently in the past. Such thinking can inspire new, improved strategies for later behavior (Epstude and Roese, 2008).
  2. Consideration of alternative actions is also apparent in self-regulation and decision making. Hofmann et al. (2009) noted that explicit preferences and automatic impulses are often in conflict, and that explicit preferences are likely to guide behavior when people are free to reflect. In contrast, when conscious reflection is hindered, people are more impulsive ( Ward and Mann, 2000 )and more likely to yield to external influences ( Westling et al., 2006 ). Conscious thought thus promotes adopting non-automatic forms of responding.
  3. Pursuit of alternative responses is evident as well in sports. In almost every popular sport, researchers have found that the mental rehearsal of motor skills is nearly as beneficial for performance as physical practice (Druckman and Swets, 1988; Driskellet al., 1994). Thus, conscious mental practice improves skilled performance. (pp 45)

I invite you to consider that what you see in those three paragraphs is so obvious that we often fail to marvel at it. You’re made of the same stuff as rocks and rivers (people like to feel good that they’re made of star dust, but stars experience nothing they are just as mentally inert as fossilized piece of dinosaur toenail or an earth worm pod). Yet, you can consider what might have been, what could be, and what you would rather experience right now! I’m sure you can consider such a large amount of could-have-been circumstances that they would be infinite if you had the time to keep thinking.

Look at paragraph 2! When conscious reflection is hindered, people become more impulsive. But that does not just mean when they become distracted. In this article, it is argued that consciousness often does not help do things in the moment (so much of life is reflexive). Consciousness and moments of reflection help you to plan not to be a fool in the future. We live in a culture of nearly infinite distraction. We waste our consciousness, (with which we can imagine things like infinite lines, wizards with magic dragons, obsess over a crush we just developed, like when I first met my wife,  perform differential equations with extreme rigor, or contemplate God), on so many intrusions that we become unable to be responsible agents at all.

I hope that this fairly obvious conclusion of a great deal of research is able to restore some wonder to your life. If it happens to also give you a more rigorous understanding of the biological function of consciousness, I suppose that’s cool too. But most importantly, be conscious. We were created to be awake to the creation as well as to God. It is foolishness to let cultivated creation so distract us from the brute facts of our own awakeness, the strangeness of everything, and the even greater strangeness of other minds that we just become automatons tossed to and fro by every machination of invention and technology.

*Masicampo, E. J., Baumeister, R. F., Morsella, E., & Poehlman, T. (2013). Conscious thought does not guide moment-to-moment actions–it serves social and cultural functions. Frontiers In Psychology, 41-5.

**On a side note: not all things participate in God in equal ways. Paul notes that all living things live, and move, and have their being in God, just before telling his audience to repent because they are, apparently, not participating in the moral life of God.


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