A coherent self?

by consciousnessthoughts

In our lives, everything we ever read is something which has been thought over, which has been crafted, which has by and large gone through several versions before it meets our eye. When we speak to others, even the most mumbly confused of people, we get some semblance of thought, of some whole, some self. Even when we in turn write something down or speak to another person, somehow something happens where, as if from a galaxy of disparate sources, an actual idea forms. We don’t run these things through meticulously before we speak. At least I don’t. Tell me you don’t either. As the man said, how can I tell you what I think until I’ve heard what I have to say?

The effect that this has on our sense of self is quite profound. It makes us think that the self is real, that it is something within and amongst us and which is the essential whole, such as that speaking to you now. This is of course nonsense. A person is only a sum of their actions, and the self a crude collage of thoughts, responses and learned behaviours. It’s not something we like to hear, but it might just be the truest theory we have for now.

An interesting thought experiment to demonstrate this is the idea, asserted by certain corners of the philosophical world, that consciousness and free will is an illusion based upon nothing but behavioural conditioning. Before we begin with this thought experiment, I’ll briefly describe a breakthrough psychological experiment by BF Skinner. Here he concocted one of his famous ‘Skinner boxes’, which is essentially a box containing an animal (usually a rat or a pigeon or some such) and a food chute. In the classical experiment there would be a lever for the animal to use in order to receive a portion of food, thereby teaching them an action-reward sequence. In his later modified experiment however, he included no obvious means by which the animal could get food. Instead, the food was supplied entirely at random intervals. What he saw was quite astonishing. Each different ‘participant’ was displaying some kind of strange piece of behaviour, whether it was bobbing its head in a certain way or going to a particular corner. He theorised that each animal must’ve done this action and then, entirely by chance, was given food. Its learned response was seemingly just as valid as the lever system, but was in fact merely a coincidence. This you might hear is known as the Superstition Hypothesis. We exhibit it ourselves in our daily life in our own little ticks and habits. Footballers wear the same socks to the cup final as they wore to the semi-final because they have learned an arbitrary action-reward relationship.

Moving swiftly back to our consciousness/self thought experiment then. It has been said that our felt urge to act and the belief that our own ‘volition’ is behind our actions is simply an erroneous belief based on consistently proximal observations: i.e. I feel the urge to move my hand – my hand moves. This happens every time I feel the urge, and also every time my hand moves. Therefore, syllogistically, the felt urge to move my hand must be causing my hand to move. One ground-breaking experiment was performed by B. Libet. Here he had participants note at what point they consciously felt the urge to move their hand, while simultaneously tracking their brain activity. They recorded cerebral activity nearly 0.4 seconds before the participants had claimed to feel the urge to act, bringing into question all sorts of philosophical conundra.

In psychology, so often it is when things go wrong that things become interesting. Studies into illness and abnormality can so often show us more about normality than normality itself. With regard to our perception of free will, we have those frontal-lobe damage patients who exhibit something known as ‘utilisation behaviour’. Here, with the parts of their brain in charge of decision-making impaired, their hands will zip zips and button buttons, or simply go to light a cigarette, without prior conscious urge. Essentially hands will conduct some sort of action based on the tools at hand. Most excitingly however, despite how clear it is that these actions weren’t intended (particularly when some are done and undone over and over again, such as with the zipping and unzipping of a coat), the patients will confabulate extraordinary reasons with which to explain their behaviours. Perhaps we’re all the same, except our actions are by and large less inexplicable.

This of course is not the only thing which causes me to question the veracity of our inherent belief in our own free will. We can see it in other animals, in animals who go about their business on what appears to be nothing but instinct and environmental changes to their homeostasis. Anthropomorphise animals as we so often do, we rarely truly believe that they have consciousness such as ours. The only things that give us this sense of superiority, it seems, are our language and our ability to create and appreciate art. As I’ve mentioned above, I very rarely feel all in that much control of my ability to do either. For instance that sentence just there, I had no idea how it was going to finish until it did. Of course I had the idea (didn’t ‘I’?) and seemingly provided the words, but really it was all there to be dictated to whatever ‘me’ I happen to feel is in control. I suppose this is what will happen when you have a brain and a mind made up of nothing but an indeterminate number of individual neurons, and no one ‘seat of consciousness’.