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Phenomenal Epiphenomenalism

Our conscious minds are driven by unconscious processes, much as it may seem otherwise, say David A. Oakley and Peter W. Halligan. A short version is here, though the full article is also admirably clear and readable.

To summarise very briefly, they suggest three distinct psychological elements are at work. The first, itself made up of various executive processes, is what we might call the invisible works; the various unconscious mechanisms that supply the content of what we generally consider conscious thought.  Introspection shows that conscious thoughts often seem to pop up out of nowhere, so we should be ready enough to agree that consciousness is not entirely self-sustaining. When we wake up we generally find that the stream of consciousness is already a going concern. The authors also mention, in support of their case, various experiments. Some of these were on hypnotised subjects, which you might feel detracts from their credibility in explaining normal thought processes. Other ‘priming’ effects have also taken a bit of a knock in the recent trouble over reproducibility. But I wouldn’t make heavy weather of these points; the general contention that the contents of consciousness are generated by unconscious processes (at least to a great extent) seems to me one that few would object to. How could it be otherwise? It would be most peculiar if consciousness were a closed loop, like some Ouroboros swallowing its own tail.

The second element is a continuously generated personal narrative. This is an essentially passive record of some of the content generated by the ‘invisible works’, conditioned by an impression of selfhood and agency. The narrative has evolutionary survival value because it allows the exchange of experience and the co-ordination of behaviour, and enables us to make good guesses at others’ plans – the faculty often called ‘theory of mind’.

At first glance I thought the authors, who are clearly out to denounce something as an epiphenomenon (a thing that is generated by the mind but has no influence on it), had this personal narrative as their target, but that isn’t quite the case. While they see the narrative as essentially the passive product of the invisible works, they clearly believe it has some important influences on our behaviour through the way it enables us to talk to others and take their thoughts into account. One point which seems to me to need more prominence here is our ability to reflexively  ‘talk to ourselves’ mentally and speculate about our own motives. I think the authors accept that this goes on, but some philosophers consider it a vital process, perhaps constitutive of consciousness, so I think they need to give it a substantial measure of attention. Indeed, it offers a potential explanation of free will and the impression of agency; it might be just the actions that flow from the reflexive process that we regard as our own free acts.

One question we might also ask is, why not identify the personal narrative as consciousness itself? It is what we remember of ourselves, after all. Alternatively, why not include the ‘invisible works’? These hidden processes fall outside consciousness because (I think) they are not accessible to introspection; but must all conscious processes be introspectable? There’s a distinction between first and second-order awareness (between knowing and knowing that we know) which offers some alternatives here.

It’s the third element that Oakley and Halligan really want to denounce; this is personal awareness, or what we might consider actual conscious experience. This, they say, is a kind of functionless emergent phenomenon. To ask its purpose is as futile as asking what a rainbow is for; it’s just a by-product of the way things work, an epiphenomenon. It has no evolutionary value, and resembles the whistle on a steam locomotive – powered by the machine but without influence over it (I’ve always thought that analogy short-changes whistles a bit, but never mind).

I suppose the main challenge here might be to ask why the authors think personal awareness is anything at all. It has no effects on mental processes, so any talk about it was not caused by the thing itself. Now we can talk about things that did not cause that talking; but those are typically abstract or imaginary entities. Given their broadly sceptical stance, should the authors be declaring that personal awareness is in fact not even an epiphenomenon, but a pure delusion?

I have my reservations about the structure suggested here, but it would be good to have clarity and, at the risk of damning with faint praise, this is certainly one of the more sensible proposals.

Posted in Conscious Entities.