Sunday, 17 July 2011

Living with the machine

The previous Libet post and an earlier post both introduce the idea that we only become conscious of events after they happen. The time delay may only be a few hundred milliseconds, but it seems to be an important aspect of how we function. In a sense, we are response-machines overseen by what we may as well call delayed consciousness.

Imagine a dog running out into the road, just in front of your car while you are driving to work, mulling over office politics or whatever. If all goes well, your response-machine brakes hard and you don't hit the dog. Once the emergency is over, the response-machine takes your foot off the brake, automatically pulling on the handbrake while you check if the dog is still around. If the dog has gone, you allow the response-machine to resume driving while you reflect on your quick reactions then gradually meander back to office politics.

Your conscious mind caught up with the near-miss a few hundred milliseconds after your response-machine had dealt with it, although it will have seemed as if you were aware of everything all the time. This was another of Libet's discoveries, the way we automatically alter the apparent timing of our conscious awareness so that it seems to coincide with the quicker reactions of our response-machine.

So you breath a sigh of relief, cursing all dog-owners while the response-machine drives you to work without further incident.

This dualism is as old as the hills of course, but might it be real? Are we mostly a super-complex response-machine with some kind of conscious overseer who is always behind the curve. If so, then what is the nature of this tardy overseer?

Frankly I don't know and I'm not really convinced it is knowable, but I tend to equate it with whatever it is we do when we understand - whatever understanding might be. Spinoza tended to skate round this issue, but he did say that we are free to affirm or deny, which for me is as good as anything I've come across. We affirm or deny, approve or disapprove of our response-machine's actions, so that next time a similar response may be just the same (affirmation or approval) or different (denial or disapproval).

So we oversee the response-machine by acting as a kind of censor as to what is appropriate or inappropriate, what we agree with or don't agree with, what we should or shouldn't have done. The less we censor, the more broadminded we are, the more interested. The less we censor, the more we tend to explore new ways of looking at things to broaden our understanding, the more likely we are to advise the response-machine competently - even as a back-seat driver.


Time Traveller said...

I've been following this but not following it. Isn't the response machine first triggered by the seeing machine and isn't the seeing machine part of consciousness?

Don't we just temporarily divert all our resources from reflection to the immediacy of coping with response?

A K Haart said...

TT - according to Libet's experiments, we seem to be entirely unconscious of what we are doing until about 500 milliseconds afterwards. So even when we see something, we are not conscious of seeing it until our unconscious has already dealt with it.

However we automatically wind back the consciousness clock so that we 'remember' seeing something as it happened. In fact we didn't consciously see it then at all.

Time Traveller said...

Hmm. My instinctive reaction is to question whether the mechanics of the experimental method are sufficiently sophisticated to establish such a conclusion.

Having watched the previous video several times, all I can see from the graph is a human machine making a decision and then spinning up towards taking the resultant mechanical actions. Isn't the time delay just resistance in the system or am I completely misunderstanding consciousness?

Interesting subject, thank you.