Ego, enforcement costs, and the unitary executive

Preparing the ground

This is the first of a few posts on this topic. Here I ask the motivating question, and review evidence on human (and animal) consciousness that will help to answer it.

Jerry Fodor, with his usual brilliant phrasing of bad ideas, sums up the issue:

If… there is a community of computers living in my head, there had also better be somebody who is in charge; and, by God, it had better be me.
In Critical Condition

More generally, human beings seem to feel that any time there is a population working together, somebody has to be in charge — and it had better be “one of us”.

But this is at best a debatable proposition, and it sometimes has very bad consequences. Furthermore, as I will discuss in subsequent posts, it acts as a barrier to population thinking. Why do we hold to it so strongly, and often (like Fodor) treat it as an axiom in philosophical, social, or political reasoning? And more practically, how can we adopt a more sensible stance?

I believe we can start to answer the first question by looking at the function of consciousness.

Bernard Baars, in his Cognitive Theory of Consciousness proposes a functional account of consciousness: an animal needs to be able to make coherent responses to potential threats or opportunities, and more generally to act as a coherent whole. Uncoordinated behavior is likely to be ineffective or even damaging. Consciousness provides a common frame that multiple sensory-motor systems can use to integrate their responses; most importantly, it helpt the animal to generate appropriate coordinated behavior in novel situations.

Libet’s experiments throw interesting additional light on the role of consciousness. Summarizing somewhat brutally, Libet found that our conscious awareness lags our perceptual stimulation, response, and even voluntary decisions by 200-500 milliseconds (1/5 to 1/2 second). Sometimes responses triggered by conscious awareness can intervene in an ongoing process and stop it, but in other cases the conscious awareness comes too late. We have probably all had the experience of seeing a glass tip over or fall off a table and being unable to get our body to move quickly enough to avert the mess, even though it seemed like there was enough time. The problem, of course, is that “we” (i.e. our conscious awareness) didn’t “get the news” until it was too late to do anything — and our sensory-motor subsystems weren’t ready to respond pre-consciously to that class of event because we weren’t in the right (conscious) “frame of mind” to prepare them.

All of this is consistent with Baar’s hypothesis. If consciousness mainly provides a “frame of mind” that helps (fairly autonomous) subsystems coordinate their activities, then it can still work fine even if it tracks events with some delay. Routine activities can proceed with minimal conscious awareness. Drastic interruptions or significant violations of expectations will generate an orienting response that pushes conscious awareness to the forefront.

This is a good story and may well be true — the empirical jury is still deliberating, though research continues to generate supporting evidence, making a favorable verdict increasingly likely.

But this story doesn’t account for the rhetorical verve and intensity of Fodor’s comment, or more generally our passionate attachment to feelings of comprehensive self-awareness and self-control. Why do we typically, like Fodor, feel uncomfortable with the possibility of being a community of subsystems, often loosely coordinated, with our conscious self acting as an intermittent framing mechanism for their activities? Surely this is a better description of our ordinary experience than vivid, comprehensive internal perception of a luminous self?

I’ll take up these questions in the next post of this series.

One Response to “Ego, enforcement costs, and the unitary executive”

  1. March 28th, 2007 | 2:47 pm

    [...] written some posts (1, 2) specifically on why this glitch occurs but I think it will take a long time for our intuitive [...]

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