The Great Confabulation

Posted by on July 9, 2011

I wanted to go to the kitchen to eat because I was craving a bowl of cereal.  I went to the kitchen.  Therefore, I consciously chose to go because I wanted a bowl of cereal.  The conception of the mind is that we are consciously aware beings and that our conscious minds are in control of what we do.  The causality of actions is deemed to be controlled by a personal, conscious self.  Such is the folk psychological perspective on how our minds work in respect to consciousness.  The mind has always been a topic of interest, with many theories regarding it posited, but recently, scientific discoveries have also suggested the involvement of the adaptive unconscious.  This means a view may no longer persist that it is us and our conscious alone that decides our actions.  Springing from these ideas are the thoughts of how the conscious and unconscious might be related, what role might they each respectively play in our mind?  What becomes of our view on freewill and moral philosophy with these new scientific discoveries?  In this paper I will discuss all of these ideas, mainly through a comparison of Wilson’s ideas to Wegner and Wheatley’s findings.

There are three models for consciousness that are proposed by Wilson, the first of which is the CEO model.  This model suggests that consciousness is the president of the executive branch and everything else doing work (non-conscious) in the executive branch is doing so under the command of the president.  Here, the conscious sets the policy, makes major decisions, and intervenes when a serious problem arises.  Adaptive unconscious is subservient to the conscious mind, and performs all the tasks as commanded by the President.  This view is suggested because it is understood that one person cannot handle everything.  Therefore, several non-conscious agencies are required for the entire executive branch to run properly.  This model also warns that if consciousness loses touch with adaptive unconscious then there could be serious trouble because the latter could start doing things consciousness does not want.  In this model, consciousness has a crucial function.

The complete opposite of the CEO model of the mind is the idea that consciousness does not have a crucial role in the mind.  One extreme of this, epiphenomenalism, states that it has no function at all.  A common example of this, cited by Wilson, is that of a kid who does not insert coins into the arcade machine, yet begins to push buttons on it and thinks he is playing a game.  He does not realize that he is only observing the action being displayed on the screen.    In any case, this view by philosophers is suggested to be a press secretary model, which suggests that consciousness simply reports on the operations of the mind but has no influence in setting policy.  The conscious here is an observer and is not an active role player in decision making.

The third idea on how consciousness works in the mind is the Ronald Reagan model.  Historically, Ronald Reagan was not known to be an influential President in his office, and may have had differing amounts of influence on government policy in his stay in office.  The analogy here is essentially that “one can feel presidential, and indeed be presidential, but still be less in control than it seems from either the inside or the outside,” (Strangers 48).  Wilson suggests here that consciousness may be the president that does not exert much power or control, but is still able to manipulate what goes on to some extent by influencing the information it receives from adaptive unconscious to create inferences and goals.

To understand where we are going with these models of the mind, we must compare and contrast them with each other and the folk psychological view.  In comparison to folk psychology, the CEO model seems to be the most consistent since it presents consciousness to be the main decision maker, while the unconscious plays the role of only the workers working for the president.  In complete contrast, the press secretary model seems to outright reject the folk psychological perspective because in this view the unconscious is the main play maker while the conscious plays only the role of an observer.  This would seem to suggest that all the actions that we are attributing to our conscious-aware selves are actually occurring beneath our consciousness.  Meanwhile, the conscious reports to us about what is going on.  Obviously, this is extremely contradictory to the folk psychology of the mind and the CEO model; this type of a model of the mind would be a complete surprise that would cause us to rethink a lot of what we think we know about the mind and society, more of which will be discussed later.

The Ronald Reagan model is an interesting design, but it seems to be an academic compromise between what we want to believe and an entirely alternative perspective.  This is not surprising because generally, if we think we know something, we tend to continue to believe in it regardless of what other perspective or facts might be out there that contradict our belief.  Wilson is the one introducing the concept of the adaptive unconscious so I do not think he is trying to reject the unconscious by presenting the model.  The Ronald Reagan model also seems to be an attempt to cling on to the folk psychological view while attempting to embrace the new concept of the adaptive unconscious.  This model fits better with folk psychology than the press secretary model, but since it is trying to embrace the latter it is not as consistent with folk psychology as the CEO model.

Surprising results are shown through Wegner and Wheatley when they discuss what implications their results may have on the folk psychological view of the conscious will, the will that people think exists because they believe that their thoughts cause the actions they perform.  In their results they reflect that everything we believe the conscious may be doing might actually be happening through the operations of the adaptive unconscious.  The authors results explain that the adaptive unconscious could have sent the signal to the conscious regarding the action it was about to perform, as well as caused the action itself to occur.  Therefore, the experience of the conscious will might actually be a confabulated story created by a confabulating mechanism that attempts to make sense of the two signals sent by the unconscious.  This shows that the conscious will is an illusion.  Furthermore, it suggests here that consciousness may just be an interpreter of the connections between the various operations of the unconscious, confabulating stories about the causes of signals sent by the unconscious.  The example provided in the beginning of the paper, of thinking I went to the kitchen because I wanted a bowl of cereal, is evidence to this conscious story-making confabulator.

The results from Wegner and Wheatley seem to suggest that the epiphenomenal press secretary model may be the most plausible idea of the three.  The role of the conscious is defined more through Wegner and Wheatley’s results, such that it may be the interpreting mechanism that brings into fruition confabulated stories to the mind in order to make sense of the operations of the adaptive unconscious, such as the conscious will.  Looking back at the Ronald Reagan model, it may make more sense as to why that model seems to be more of an academic compromise than anything; it is because of the incredibly surprising results from the Wegner and Wheatley study which suggest that in terms of scientific accuracy, the epiphenomenal press secretary model seems to be the best.

It was suggested earlier that in this model, consciousness does not play a role in the functioning of the mind.   This still holds true but I think it would be a serious mistake to disregard its importance altogether.  Consciousness may not, according to this model, be important in the operations of the mind, but it may still be important to the mind.  Regardless of the fact that this confabulator makes up stories that might not be true in most cases, our entire existence would be wholly different without it.  Imagining an existence where all that we had was the unconscious mind. It would be torture because there would be no stories to enjoy.  To add to this fun, there could also be the possibility that consciousness may also be involved in creating stories about why other people do the things that they do.  The way we perceive people to be virtuous from their actions in situations may be due to this consciousness.  Maybe, if we didn’t have this consciousness, we wouldn’t have stories like why Jack and Jill went up the hill, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Romeo and Juliet, Kantian principles, or Nietzsche’s Ubermensch.  Where would all the fun about the world be then?  All of this leads to a discussion of the implications that these scientific findings have on society, on our views of freewill, and moral philosophy.

Most of moral philosophy has been influenced by thoughts inferring that we are agents making choices.  Therefore, it would be legitimate to hold us accountable for our actions.  Legally speaking, a lot of times in criminal cases people are let go because it is determined that the person was acting out of insanity; we do not hold them accountable for their crime because we believe people who are insane do not have control over their actions or that they do not choose to act that way.  In terms of justice, the person is institutionalized.

If we are considering the press secretary model to be true on the basis of the scientific evidence found, then we must consider the aforementioned ideas about moral philosophy seriously.  It might be the case now that we are all insane.  Or, it might be the case that we all must be institutionalized.  It might also be the case that we would have to rework the entire basis of ethics, morality, moral philosophy, justice, and in general the basis of a civilized society, because it is all based on, from the evidence of these studies, confabulated stories believing that we have control and make choices.  Then, Deontological arguments, Utilitarian arguments, Contractualist arguments, and almost all arguments that refer to our ability to make conscious decisions would all fail, because these studies seem to suggest we have no free will, since we never have control and so cannot make conscious decisions.  If none of us has control, then how do we determine what is ethical or moral?  If none of us has control and crimes start to increase, what do we do with the now determined confabulating criminals?  Do we let them go?  Do we institutionalize them?  Yikes!

Maybe the answer is that we do nothing to change the system, that we keep it as it is.  This might be because the system was never created initially with the intention that we have control, or really had some super ideas about morality and the possibilities of the Overman/Superman.  If thought about naturally, it might be the case that man from the early ages figured out rather quickly that in order for him to survive he had to form groups to coexist in.  Once the threat of nature vs. man began to decrease, the threat of man vs. man might have increased due to each individual wanting greater control of resources.  Earlier intelligent men, the philosophical type, might have then figured out rather quickly that in order for them to survive in this competition they would have to create groups that believed in sets of principles.  Morality, ethics, and social responsibility might then have simply developed as confabulating stories in order to keep a stable civilization; different people, countries, governments would influence different thoughts about each of these in order to maintain whatever level of control they want over their resources, and especially in regards to who gets to have them.

If we recognize that this entire system of ethics, government, and morality have been confabulating stories from the very beginning, then I don’t think we have to worry too much about changing the system so long as we can continue to convince everyone that it is worth it.  A Hobbesian approach always seems great at times like these; just tell the public that without this confabulated system of government, morality, ethics, etc, we would all plunge into chaos.  Well, there you have it.  The Great Confabulation.

Through this paper I have discussed the ideas presented by Wilson, and Wegner and Wheatley.  The three models of the mind, CEO, press secretary, and Ronald Reagan, have been discussed, compared, and viewed in light of scientific evidence from Wegner and Wheatley’s paper as well as the folk psychological view of the mind.  As research technology grows, scientific discoveries of the mind are bound to grow.  The research presented by Wegner and Wheatley shows us that these discoveries are going to surprise us, and challenge how we currently perceive the world and how it should be run.


Work Cited

Strangers to Ourselves:  Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, Timothy D. Wilson, Harvard University Press, 2002.


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