• Evolution, language and the unconcsious: yup, free will again!

    John D. Bargh is a psychologist with an interest in matters concerning free will. He contributed a chapter to a superb book on psychology and free will, which I would advise anyone to get, called Are We Free? From it, this excerpt was interesting, especially given recent conversations defending naturalism with a fellow Tippling Philosopher by email who thinks that human minds are too far removed from the rest of the animal kingdom to be explicable by naturalistic evolution (pp. 145-146):

    This means that the “blind” unconscious mental modules that serve us so well from a functional perspective must be capable of some form of adaptive integration to produce single, serial decisions and behavior in real time. (This is the problem of connecting the parallel brain to the serial world in which we can only do one thing at a time; Bargh, 1997, 2006.) This supposition will again help us make sense of two more current puzzles, one that was posed 50 years ago, and another just recently.

    The first of these is how quickly and suddenly, in terms of evolutionary timescales, we acquired language (see Pinker, 1994). It was not gradual, and did not depend on our brains growing to a certain critical size, for Neanderthal brains, which did not have language, were if anything larger than our contemporary brains (Calvin, 1989). Language is a complex skill that could not possibly be acquired so quickly in young children through normal, slow, trial-and-error learning processes (Chomsky, 1959); it develops spontaneously in nearly all children worldwide regardless of their levels of intelligence. The language production mechanism, “through use of ‘phrase structure,’ takes a web of thoughts and outputs them in form of words spoken one at a time, without a conscious effort or formal instruction, and is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic” (Pinker, 1994, pp. 101–2).

    The speed with which we acquired language as a species, and the exponential advances in culture and knowledge we’ve made since then (see Diamond, 1992), suggests that as an ability it piggybacked or was “scaffolded” onto an existing structure, or what Dennett (1995) called a “good trick”—a solution nature has come up with for a problem that tends to be used over and over again in nature (e.g., the independent evolution of eyes in many different species). The evolutionary theorist Calvin (1989) argued similarly that innate language abilities themselves are quite recent, even rushed, additions to our genetic makeup, and as such are very likely exaptations of previously existing sequencing circuitry in the brain. What this means for present purposes is that not only did sophisticated unconscious modules evolve that give us today the building blocks of adaptive motives, preferences, and behavioral impulses, all operating unconsciously, there was also evolved a mechanism to integrate or interface these separate, parallel inputs into serial behavioral and judgmental responses. Our ability to take a vague thought and have it come out of our mouths in a complete coherent sentence, the production of which happens unconsciously, is a paramount example of this. It is not something we need consciousness or free will for. It is not the case that notwithstanding all of these wonderful adaptive unconscious inputs, we still need a central conscious executive, operating spontaneously and freely, to make behavioral decisions based on these inputs. All of those separate types of input, as documented above, have their own direct connections to behavioral mechanisms. And there also must have been some mechanism to integrate the multiple parallel unconscious inputs into serial responses, because this is a problem we faced as a species in the distant past before the development of consciousness and language, as evidenced by the opportunistic exploitation or “co-option” of the mechanism by language.

    Note, too, in this regard the recent “surprising” findings of Dijksterhuis, Bos, Nordgren, and van Baaren (2005), who showed that better decisions are made when a person is distracted while making them than when able to devote total conscious attention and deliberation to the process. In these studies, across a variety of domains, participants were first presented with the relevant facts, and then made decisions as to the best house to buy or which soccer team would win a particular match. Some then had to do a secondary task and so were distracted during the decision time interval, and others were not. Those who were distracted consistently outperformed the “conscious” group in these choices (the studies were designed so that there was a best or optimal solution by objective standards).

    Language is a fascinating mental construct which is amazingly created by our non-conscious minds on “our” behest. I recently posted a video clip about this from Sam Harris talking in Sydney. Language appears to be at least hugely determined by our nonconscious brains and, as Bargh states, this is a good thing since when our brains are distracted and thus rely on intuitive mechanisms, better decisions can be made. That said, work such as Kahnemann’s show that our intuitive decision-making can lack rational rigour and is prone to many biases. Obviously the types of decision-making taking place in the work of Kahnemann (such as those showing loss-aversion) are of a different category to those mentioned above.

    One must not underestimate the power of the nonconscious mind. We forget how seriously hard it must work to make connections. Learning, for example, is largely nonconscious. In terms of mimicry, and learning of others we see around us, this is embedded as a mechanism from birth. As Bargh states (p.141):

    The priming effects of people’s behavior and other situational features on us extend beyond influencing our perceptual interpretations and expectations, however. They also directly influence our own behavior, beginning soon after birth. Infants naturally learn much about how to behave by mere passive imitation of fellow children and also their adult caretakers; indeed, Meltzoff (2002) concluded from decades of researching this phenomenon that infants can imitate body movements and facial acts at birth, and that this ability represents a “primordial connection between infant and caretaker” (p. 19).

    These imitative impulses, triggered by the perceived behavior of others, continue to be activated throughout one’s life, causing children and adults to have default tendencies to act the same as those around us are acting— producing behavioral and emotional contagion effects. Thus, how other people are acting around us in the present is yet a further unconscious influence or guide as to how we ourselves should act. As Dawkins (1976) pointed out, the best behavioral strategy (from the point of view of evolution and adaptation) “depends on what the majority of the population is doing” (p. 69; see Maynard Smith, 1982; Maynard Smith & Parker, 1976). Thus, “blindly” or unconsciously adopting what others around you are doing, especially in new situations or with strangers, makes good adaptive sense as a default option or starting point for your own behavior. This tendency, and its unconscious and unintentional nature, has been repeatedly demonstrated in human adults in the research of Chartrand and colleagues (e.g., Chartrand & Bargh, 1999; Chartrand, Maddux, & Lakin, 2005; Lakin & Chartrand, 2003). People don’t know and even don’t believe after you tell them that they had engaged in these imitative behaviors—on several occasions they insisted on seeing their own videotapes before they would believe it. Not only do people tend to adopt the physical behavior (posture, facial gestures, arm and hand movements) of strangers with whom they interact, without intending to or being aware they are doing so, such unconscious imitation also tends to increase liking and bonding between the individuals—serving as a kind of natural “social glue” (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999; Giles, Coupland, & Coupland, 1991; Lakin & Chartrand, 2003).

    Making connections between things is very intuitive and reliant on nonconscious machinery. When I teach a child a mathematical procedure, they don’t make a conscious connection of cause and effect in caclulating something in a given way. It appears, both from my own subjective experience of learning, and from when I teach others, that the learning connections are made nonconsciously and the conscious brain epiphenomenalistically recognises this afterwards with a eureka moment of “I get it now!”. But it is not consciously sorting through those connections. It happens quicker than that.

    I talked a little about this in my own free will book:

    In addition, it is useful to look briefly into those moments in our lives that we may see as ‘Eureka!’ moments or moments where thoughts just pop into our minds. We can be walking down the street, or sitting on a train thinking about something completely different when suddenly, a thought pops into our head that may answer a problem, or be something of great importance. This thought, though, is clearly not one that has been consciously willed into our heads, but seems to have unconsciously popped in. As Wegner (2002), amongst others, has pointed out, many of the greatest artists and musicians find their creative optimum when they disconnect from their conscious minds, and go into a sort of unconscious ‘zone’. The nature of improvisation amongst artists is often at the exclusivity of conscious will. In fact, it is interesting to ponder exactly how our conscious minds work out things that we do labour at, such as mental mathematical calculations. We may break down 10 x 12 into (10 x 10) + (10 x 2) but when it comes down to the simple 10 x 2, it just pops into our heads. We simply don’t know how the mechanisms of our brains work, and our conscious mind simply reports on the outcomes of what our unconscious computations are. It seems our conscious minds use our non-conscious minds as computers or calculators, demanding them to magically compute raw data. A great scientist can be on the cusp of working out some world-changing formula in their job, and he might be sitting on a train on holiday, looking out of the window at the lovely meadows passing by, when the formula pops into his head, worked out. Has he willed this?  The subconscious computations of the brain have (though not willed by the conscious brain) been working away in holiday time, unbeknownst to the scientist, and have correctly come up with the answer to his conundrum. And yet he may, or may not, feel like he has willed that answer.

    That’s merely touching on the power of our nonconscious brains. Suffice to say that the millions or billions of connections we are making a day are not conscious, and yet it feels like we are consciously making these connections as the infinitesimal number which actually do register consciously appear to be caused by our consciousness. This is a conflation of conscious recognition of something with actually causing it. I think epiphenomenonalism has a strong supporting case.

    Category: ConsciousnessEvolutionFree Will and DeterminismPhilosophyPsychology


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce