Consciousness exists to make itself unnecessary

While we’re thinking about the nature of free conscious choice, this is extremely relevant. John Bargh, in this chapter – Bypassing the Will: Towards Demystifying the Nonconscious Control of Social Behavior [1] – takes evidence from several different subdisciplines and argues that consciousness – that thing which gives us our experience of deliberate control – exists exactly to make automatic, ‘unwilled’, behaviours possible.

Bargh talks about cases where the individual’s behavior is being “controlled” by external stimuli, not by his or her own consciously-accessible intentions or acts of will. and they are not aware of the true causes of their behavior. These exist, he says, not despite conscious control, but because of it

In a very real sense, then, the purpose of consciousness — why it evolved — may be for the assemblage of complex nonconscious skills. In harmony with the general plasticity of human brain development, people have the capability of building ever more complex automatic ‚Äúdemons‚Äù that fit their own idiosyncratic environment, needs, and purposes. As William James (1890) argued, consciousness drops out of those processes where it is no longer needed, freeing itself for where it is…Intriguingly, then, one of the primary objectives of conscious processing may be to eliminate the need for itself in the future by making learned skills as automatic as possible. It would be ironic indeed if, given the current juxtaposition of automatic and conscious mental processes in the field of psychology, the evolved purpose of consciousness turns out to be the creation of ever more complex nonconscious processes.

[1] Bypassing the Will: Towards Demystifying the Nonconscious Control of Social Behavior by John Bargh (2004), in The New Unconscious; ed. R. Hassin, J. Uleman, & J. Bargh. Oxford University Press.

5 thoughts on “Consciousness exists to make itself unnecessary”

  1. I haven’t read the chapter, but I have a couple reactions to this excerpt:
    1.) Why is it ironic, or at all surprising, to think of consciousness as a tool for training the rest of the brain to behave a certain way?
    2.) Making more mental processes automatic does not in any way preclude the continued necessity of consciousness. There are always new and unexpected situations for which one has not been trained.

  2. Matt
    I think the surprise is the range and sophistication of tasks we can do without conscious awareness. Maybe an interesting question is: exactly what kind of tasks *is* consciousness required for? (See the Hack in the book about talking to yourself for example)

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