Monday, February 04, 2013

The steam of the whistle

Recently I argued that the idea that our meta-thoughts can influence the way we think and by means of that our behaviour can be undermined by the “third factor counterargument”: a piece of behaviour and a conscious thought that seems to trigger it can both be caused by a third factor that makes both the behaviour and the thought happen (see my blog dated Jan. 14). So my thought to go to a bookshop in Utrecht tomorrow and my actually taking the train then in order to go there may both be caused by me watching a book program on TV now. It’s not unlikely that in this instance it’s true, although I think it’s not as simple as that. Anyway, whatever may be the case, it is a practical problem that against any sound scientific argument or theory always another equally sound argument can be brought forward that seems to refute it. Actually it’s the base for scientific progress, but on the other hand how far do we go? If we can fundamentally refute everything, only cynicism remains. So I think that now and then we must show determination and say: This is what I think that is true and this is what I want to defend. Even though we know and accept in our heart that everything can be falsified.
This is what I thought of when I put forward somewhat reluctantly the argument that a piece of behaviour and a related thought can be caused by a third factor. For actually I think that in some way our conscious thoughts do cause – or influence at least – our behaviour. Especially Baumeister and his colleagues have analyzed many studies in this field and defended the view that it is quite likely that such a causal relation exists. I think that their arguments are convincing, keeping in mind, of course, what I just said about possible falsification. Here I don’t want to summarize their analysis or repeat their arguments (see the reference below for that). However, I think that it is interesting to list their “four broad conclusions”, as they call them, about how consciousness influences behaviour. Here they are:
1) Conscious thought integrates behaviour across time. It “is helpful for enabling present or imminent behavior to benefit from past and future events, and for present and recent events to influence future behavior”, as Baumeister et al. put it. Planning is an example of this.
2) Conscious thought relates social and cultural factors and the individual’s behaviour. It mediates sharing information with and understanding other people and dealing with the human world we belong to. Negotiating is a case in point.
3) Conscious thought helps to choose in situations of several alternative possible forms of behaviour. It helps to deviate from the road we would take if we would follow the automatic pilot within us. Again I could mention here negotiations or also when we want to buy something as simple examples.
4) In fact, everything we do is a mixture of conscious and unconscious processes. Therefore, many apparently exclusively unconscious pieces of behaviour have a conscious component. Baumeister et al. mention here giving instructions and focusing attention as instances where the conscious part is overstressed but certainly there are cases where it is the other way round. A division into conscious and unconscious behavior seems to be a false dichotomy.
In view of these four points, the idea that conscious thinking is a mere epiphenomenon is quite unlikely, even though it still remains possible that somebody will come out with factors that might explain both our behaviour and our thinking about it as processes that are not immediately related. Or they argue that our thinking is simply the steam of the whistle of the machine within us (see Thomas Huxley, for instance): It shows that there is activity in our body but it doesn’t causally make it move, anyhow.
Source: Roy F. Baumeister, E. J. Masicampo, and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Do Conscious Thoughts
Cause Behavior?”,

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