Three Threats to Autonomy: Why Consciousness Does and Doesn't Matter

Notes for talk given at Brown University psychology department, 2/17/2012

Overview, definitions and assumptions

Overview. I’ll consider the question of the causal role of consciousness and see what the implications might be. The better we understand the brain, the less it seems that we need appeal to anything beyond neural processes to account for behavior. Nothing immaterial seems necessary. This generates worries about freedom, dignity and autonomy. Are we just deterministic mechanisms? And it presents a puzzle about consciousness: why are we conscious? Why did it evolve? What does it do, if anything, that the brain doesn’t already do? Might it be epiphenomenal, just along for the ride? And if so, is it the unconscious, not consciousness, that’s in control?  I aim to show how we might defuse or parry 3 threats to our autonomy: mechanism, epiphenomenalism and unconscious influences. By understanding the nature and limits of consciousness, that it doesn’t transcend mechanism, we gain in self-coherence, control and autonomy.

The “epiphenomenalist suspicion” in Owen Flanagan’s Consciousness Reconsidered: that consciousness may not play an essential causal role in controlling behavior, it may not add to what the brain is doing. What is its function? Why did it evolve?

The purported causal role of consciousness in behavior control depends on our conception of consciousness. What is consciousness?

Defining consciousness: it’s experience, e.g., phenomenal qualitative states like pain, sensation of red, the “what it is like” to have sensations, thoughts, emotions. The basic units of experience are called qualia. They are unequivocally real, as real as physical objects studied by science. Indeed, we only know the external world via our experience.

The neural correlates of consciousness (NCC):  we see a very tight correlation between conscious experience as reported by subjects and neural activity that supports certain sorts of functions. Not all of what the brain does is associated with consciousness, only certain sorts of information integrating functions which carry out higher-level cognition, see here. This strongly suggests that consciousness is a system property, an entailment of certain functions or processes being carried out, not a property of neurons themselves or of any physical substrate. This points up the distinction between…

Consciousness vs. conscious capacities: the latter are those capacities and functions associated with being conscious, e.g., learning, flexible responsiveness, memory, simulating past and future. They are critical for behavior control, so obviously conscious capacities matter tremendously. But they are not consciousness per se as defined above. We must keep this distinction in mind throughout, not conflate consciousness with its associated capacities.

Science-based naturalism is assumed here: being empirical in how we decide what’s true about human agents. We don’t transcend natural causal laws. Whatever consciousness is, whatever its functional role, it isn’t going to make us causal exceptions to nature. This is at odds with the…

Dualist folk conception of the immaterial conscious controller: each of us is a conscious mental agent that controls the body – the role of the soul. The conscious self seems non-physical and exempt from natural laws in its control capacities, giving us libertarian free will: I could have done otherwise in an actual situation (as opposed to counterfactual situation, see here). It seems like I could have done otherwise since I’m not aware of causes.

The threat of determinism/mechanism: if we don’t transcend natural laws, if we couldn’t have done otherwise, we’re merely puppets, robots; we don’t really make choices; no freedom, self-efficacy, responsibility or autonomy. But we can defuse this worry by naturalizing freedom, autonomy, etc. and seeing that our conscious capacities give us everything we need for these. Will return to this later.

Now let’s turn to the question of the causal role of consciousness and the threat of epiphenomenalism…

Why consciousness isn’t even epiphenomenal

The “hard problem” of consciousness: how is it that qualia come to exist?  It isn’t obvious how a being a cognitive system entails the existence of conscious experience for the system – the explanatory gap. Why aren’t we unconscious zombies? There’s no canonical answer to this; it remains an open question that I have hunches about (representationalism) but won’t try to address here. See “The appearance of reality” online.

Privacy of consciousness: we can see the neural correlates (NC) of consciousness (brain activity), but not conscious experience itself.  Conscious states are categorically private, undergone subjectively. Experience doesn’t appear to outside observers the way its NC do. We can see the NC of your pain, but not your pain itself. No conscious experience has ever been observed, only brains. Experiences are not public objects available to science. See “Respecting privacy: why consciousness isn’t even epiphenomenal” online.

Physicalism and the identity claim:  since all that exists is material, consciousness is likely identical to some sort of physical goings on in the brain. This identity would avoid epiphenomenalism since consciousness would just be what the brain is doing. But this identity is thus far not established.

Non-identity claim:  Because consciousness is private, it’s very difficult to literally identify any conscious state with its NC.  Plus, the NCC have different properties and characteristics than conscious experiences. Identity requires that all the properties of identical things be shared. So…

Psycho-physical parallelism: we have two parallel realities, the objective world of public objects available to scientific observation, e.g., the brain and the NCC; and the subjective world of experience. NCC and experience correlated but not identical, since the latter is private. Science can explain how evolution selected NCC of consciousness and the associated capacities, but not consciousness per se.

The threat of epiphenomenalism defused:

  • Scientific explanations can only include, or use, or appeal to what’s observable: public objects, intersubjective evidence, e.g., brains and bodies.
  • Conscious experiences are not observable, so 3rd person scientific explanations of behavior can’t appeal to them, only to the NCC, when explaining behavior. To bring in consciousness would be like bringing in ghosts, spirits, and souls. We only need talk about neural processes and other bodily processes, for instance in explaining pain behavior, learning.
  • Thus, some would say consciousness is epiphenomenal since it doesn’t play a causal role in our explanations of behavior. But…
  • This would be wrong since consciousness doesn’t appear to science. It isn’t even a useless appendage like your appendix, which does appear. Consciousness isn’t even epiphenomenal since it isn’t on the same playing field as physical objects; it isn’t in the same public explanatory space, so it’s not even in a position to be useless.

Causal role of consciousness revisited: if consciousness is identical to neural processes, then it has the same causal powers as they do, so it doesn’t play a special role. If it isn’t identical, then we have to have a story about how it adds causal power, and there is no such story: the problem of dualistic mental causation. But on my account of consciousness, it isn’t even in a position to add such power since, because it’s unobservable, it can’t figure in scientific explanations of behavior. 


The subjective and ethical significance of consciousness: For us subjects, conscious states are who we are, all we’ve got, so from our subjective standpoint they necessarily play a central role in explaining behavior (pain causes me to wince), so aren’t epiphenomenal. Subjectively, consciousness matters! It’s why we’re concerned about human rights, morality, etc. because we are sentient, conscious beings, capable of joy and suffering. We’re not worried about robot rights (yet). So consciousness doesn’t matter in scientific explanations, but subjectively and ethically it really, really does.

The threat of unconscious control: defeating nasty manipulators and achieving personal integration

The Libet/Wegner revolution: decisions are made by the brain before we become aware of them, e.g., we can predict your (simple, binary) choice before you know. Dan Wegner: “illusion of conscious will” - consciousness not in control, but simply a subjective indicator that it was my doing. Ok, but…

Reassurance about the role of conscious capacities: during the experiments we’re conscious the whole time and the experiments would be impossible if we weren’t conscious, that is, if our conscious capacities weren’t active and available to us. No surprise that there’s unconscious processing going on in advance of becoming aware of a decision, and that fact doesn’t diminish the importance of capacities associated with being conscious. Plus…

Dan Dennett’s “big me”: your brain and your unconscious processes are just as much you as your consciousness. Own them!  But, to fully own them, we must get to know them and tame them…

Unconscious bias, manipulation and automaticity: we are often unaware of significant influences on our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. E.g., implicit racism, situational factors, advertising, etc.  John Bargh in Social Psychology and the Unconscious: “Evidence is mounting that we are not as in control of our judgments and behavior as we think we are. Unconscious or ‘automatic’ forms of psychological and behavioral processes are those of which we tend to be unaware, that occur without our intention or consent, yet influence us on a daily basis in profound ways.”  Yikes!  So what’s the solution??? 

Understanding unconscious factors confers power and control: learning about the role of unconscious influences and processes allows us to second guess our behavior in light of our endorsed values and reasons. Once we know that advertisers, propagandists, politicians seek to influence us, once we know about our unconscious biases and automaticities, we can take steps to protect ourselves from influences, exert counter-control (B. F. Skinner advised us about this), and override our automaticities and biases.

Conscious integration of the self: understanding the limits of conscious capacities, via those same capacities, enlarges the domain of conscious control and increases self-coherence. We can perhaps even re-groove our unconscious to some extent. This is the ethical and practical significance of work on unconscious processes: we can become morally better, more effective agents that can justifiably endorse ourselves.

Defusing the threat of determinism/mechanism: naturalizing freedom and autonomy

Folk worry about consciousness: if consciousness doesn’t transcend determinism and mechanism, if it doesn’t give us libertarian contra-causal free will, then we’re just robots, we don’t make choices, can’t be held responsible, and we lose control and will run amok.

Vohs and Schooler worry about determinism: they think spreading the word about naturalism, determinism and mechanism will wreak havoc since challenging beliefs about libertarian free will is demoralizing, leads to lying, cheating, etc. But this was badly designed research, since it conflated determinism/mechanism with fatalism: the idea that our actions don’t make a difference. But they do. Plus…

Maintaining the myth of libertarian free will is wrong! Because it

  • contradicts science, our most reliable basis for beliefs about the world, including ourselves.
  • undermines control, since we will ignore actual causes of our behavior.
  • allows us to avoid social responsibility, since we can blame individuals alone, not their genes, situations, upbringing, education, environments, communities and social systems.
  • encourages punitive attitudes, retributive punishment, regressive economic and social policies.

The myth of libertarian freedom is the biggest con of all since it makes people think that at their core they are immune from manipulation; so they let down their guard and will blame themselves, not the manipulators, if duped. Skinner warned us in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and now Bargh warns us.

The naturalistic alternative: explode the libertarian myth of the immaterial conscious controller and naturalize freedom, self-efficacy, responsibility and autonomy, and in doing so, gain them:

  • Real freedom: the freedoms we value have to do with being free from aversive control and unconscious manipulation: freedom of action, of conscience, of self-actualization. These are compatible with our being natural, law-governed organic mechanisms.
  • Real self-efficacy: choosing and deciding is what our brains do, just as real and causally effective as any other natural phenomenon. Conscious capacities are effective because they are neurally instantiated, deterministic and mechanistic.
  • Real responsibility: We can, and must, hold each other responsible as a way of shaping ethical behavior. Being exempt from causation, as in being immaterial conscious controllers, would make us ungovernable psychopaths. See “Holding mechanisms responsible” online.
  • Real autonomy: acting on the basis of one’s own values, desires, projects as reflectively endorsed and integrated. We don’t need to be miniature first causes (“little gods”), or ultimately self-created, or transcend cause and effect; all impossible anyway. Plus, a causally exempt controller would have no reason to choose a particular course of action.


By understanding the nature and limits of consciousness, that it doesn’t transcend mechanism, we gain in self-coherence, control and autonomy. We can accept our unconscious as an important part of who we are, but (thanks to social psychologists!) are better able to anticipate unconscious influences and manipulation, including the myth of libertarian free will, and exert counter control. Our conscious capacities are valuable and essential and often in charge – they matter, as does the existence of conscious experience itself for us subjects – but they needn’t transcend what the brain does to support naturalized freedom, self-efficacy, responsibility and autonomy. Seeing this, we can better deploy our conscious capacities to achieve greater real freedom and dignity.

TWC, February, 2012

Friday, February 17, 2012