Now the interesting part. If you have not yet read my definition of consciousness, then you might want to do so.
In the last two days I’ve discussed déjà vu and “slow motion..” Those two topics had a couple of similarities: in both instances the difference between the processing speed of the subconscious and the conscious is important; and consciousness plays the role of a passive observer.
In my opinion this is the usual role of consciousness: passive observer.
If you closed your eyes and counted to ten when reading my definition, do you believe your consciousness had anything to do with the counting? Clearly not. Consciousness could not get to two if the subconscious was not there “handing” the appropriate info to consciousness at the appropriate time.
Simple math? I ask what’s two plus two. You already know it is four. But how? Even if you added the digits “in your head”, it was the subconscious carrying the load and feeding the info to the conciousness.
ABC’s? Same thing.
This is clear because most of the time, the number sequence from one to ten (or fifty to seventy-five) and the alphabet are not present in consciousness. If all of such details were present, the clutter would be overwhelming.
Higher math? Same thing. The calculating is going on in the subconscious with the info fed to the conscious.
Plenty of learning obviously takes place without consciousness. People “pick up” mannerisms from others all the time with no awareness that they have done so. Pavlovian conditioning takes place with no conscious awareness. Lots of learning seems to rely on consciousness to at least get started, but consciousness quickly interferes with learning more than helps it.
One’s body feels and reacts to pain without consciousness being involved. Sure, if the pain gets severe, one cannot help but be conscious of it. This does not mean that consciousness was necessary for the body to feel the pain and react to it. It only means that the consciousness was aware of it.
I did say just above that “lots of learning seems to rely on consciousness to at least get started,” but I did say “seems”. I think it is doubtful that consciousness plays any role in most such situations. Decisions are made subconsciously and fed to the conscious often with the attendent illusion that the decision was consciously made.
I first encountered this idea of the passivity of consciousness in the late seventies when I read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. A book that begins with the compelling case of this passivity. As the book goes on the other case(s) being made are less (and less) compelling. Over the next thirty years I have spent a lot of time contemplating what my consciousness was necessary for.
That last sentence perhaps gives a clue about the possible purpose of consciousness. I spent time contemplating. There seems to be conscious intention and thought. Was consciousness doing the thinking? Probably not. Consciousness was just hanging on to the idea waiting for the subconscious to provide info.
But did the intention originate with consciousness? Maybe. But not necessarily. I suspect most (all?) of my “intentions” originate subconsciously.
So what is consciousness for? It is an amazing phenomena. It is a “space” where no space exists. It seems so completely central to one’s identity, yet it seems to have no function.
My best guess at present is that consciousness has the function of allowing an individual to behave in a way that differs from how one’s genetic and experiential background would dictate. I do not have any evidence of this. But it does seems clear that, at least occasionally, individuals do something that is contrary to the dictates of their genetic and experiential background. How is that possible?
Only with a conscious effort. Even if the motive is based in the sub conscious, it is only with the conscious effort that an individual overcomes the genetic and experiential dictates.