How to Ignore Your Conscience
How to Ignore Your Conscience
The title of this paper, how to ignore your conscience, stemmed from an idea I had after reading a recent edition of New Scientist magazine (August 15th 2015), psychologists Peter Halligan and David Oakley propose that we do not fully control our conscious self, or have fully conscious choices as we once thought. It was shown that our physical body reacts, performs movements or tasks, and interacts with the world around us, prior to our conscious mind telling it to do so. When we jerk our head in order to avoid a falling ball from hitting us, it is a non-conscious reaction prior to when our conscious selves acknowledge this and tells our head to move from the danger. When we start lifting our pint of beer in the pub there is a tiny lag between our non-conscious action and our conscious awareness that we are thirsty and that is why we are doing it.
Halligan and Oakley (2015) believe that our non-conscious physical responses, intuitions and instincts react first, while our conscious reasoning for doing so only comes about in a small time-lag afterwards. The mental process that reacts and causes us to perform certain actions or behaviours comes first and our conscious reasoning for doing so only comes about subsequently. Our unconscious selves tells our conscious selves why we are doing the things we are doing. Seeing this movie, feeling sadness at a particular scene within the movie, or smelling the popcorn or tasting the candy you brought with you into the cinema, are all relays of information being sent from your unconscious brain’s activities to your conscious self. We are already reaching for the box of popcorn or soft-drink as a result of our unconscious desires, with those desires relaying the information of “pick up the popcorn, they smell good” or “my mouth is salty, a drink would quench that” to the body afterwards. This appears to us to be conscious decision-making that we are willingly and consciously processing and choosing. So creating a guide of how to ignore your conscience may not be as simplistic as some people claim.
How to Ignore Your Conscience, is it Possible at all?
This dramatically alters our understanding of the self and what it means to make individual and conscious decisions. Not only does it warp our understanding of our freedom to make decisions based on rational, informed, and deliberate decisions ourselves, but it also dramatically changes what we understand to be free-will and choice in our actions. The article also gives a number of reasons about how consciousness came about, or rather how consciousness was created as an idea by human beings throughout our evolution. They propose that our conscious experience was created so we were able to formulate our reasons, feelings, and thoughts for doing a certain action as opposed to another action, so that we can explain this to others in our tribes and communities. It was a distinct evolutionary advantage because it gave us a greater survivability by allowing others with an understanding of our actions and to form cohesive societal bonds and agreements as a result. ‘It is our capacity to tell others of the contents of our consciousness that confers the evolutionary advantage – not the experience of consciousness itself’ (Halligan and Oakley 2015, p. 27).
This would allow us to adapt and create different alliances with others, to verbalise our intents, and to create bonds and systems for hunting, security, protection, and gathering. It also allowed us to educate, influence, and change others’ values and beliefs within society and also allows our own to be changed by others as well. Free will and the control over our actions are deeply embedded in unconscious brain activity and nobody is as essentially free in their activities and behaviours as we once thought. Some of the things that are normally seen as so fundamentally important for Western society – the individual, their autonomy, and freedom of choice – are quite illusionary in their origin, their execution, and thus their rationale for being defended within society when consciousness is no longer seen as the primary cause of our actions and choices.
Consciousness was essentially and fundamentally created as a self-defence mechanism by individual human beings in order to survive as a species. It was a non-conscious evolutionary creation so that we could bind together to ensure our survival and flourishing as a species; and is no more profound and unique from other species’ instinctual activities to survive. The evolutionary development of consciousness is no more profound and special than another species ability to build a hut to protect their young, sharing scavenges from a recent kill, or throwing excrement at potential security threats to their family or community. These are all joint non-conscious communications between individuals within their communities to ensure their evolutionary survival. ‘Consciousness therefore provides a powerful evolutionary advantage by allowing shared communication, and extending each individual’s understanding of the world’ (p. 27).
What we would have normally seen as categorising and defining what makes us individual and distinct from others is actually an evolutionary reactionary tool to ensure that others understand us, can empathise with us, and so that we can survive and thrive as a community and a species as a whole. We are essentially united, even by things that we would normally define us as individuals – such as consciousness. However, what does this mean to our free will? What does it mean for our own choice when consciousness lags after our non-conscious actions and activities? When our non-conscious behaviours come before our conscious control of these actions, what does this mean for responsibility, culpability, and punishment for our actions? Can we use the excuse that our unconsciousness made us do it, or is the minor time-lag between non-conscious actions and conscious acknowledgement of these actions so insignificant that it changes nothing? Perhaps more developments within the science of brain activity and the interaction between conscious and non-conscious activities will allow us to understand more about these issues.
Halligan, P., and Oakley, D. (2015) ‘Consciousness isn’t all about you, you know’, NewScientist, Volume 227, number 3034, August 15th 2015.