In 1982, Benjamin Libet carried out a remarkable study on consciousness that is still being debated by contemporary philosophers and scientists. In today’s post I would like to briefly highlight the results and spell out some implications. Here are the most pertinent results as far as I can see them:
- In order to “consciously experience” a sensation, it must apparently bounce around the somatosensory cortex, or some other “high-level” area of the cortex for about half a second, probably isolated to the frontal areas(Libet, 1982)
- “A touch on the skin that the subjects would otherwise have reported feeling was retroactively masked up to half a second later by a stimulation to the cortex”(Blackmore, 2004)
Okay, so how can phenomenological consciousness “drag” half of a second behind the real world when clearly we are able to react much faster than that? The most obvious idea is to say that consciousness has no causal power, it is merely a resultant and not a force (in James’ terms). However, this is at odds with the “hard problem” of consciousness because if our “unconscious” does all the important work, such as reacting to dangerous stimuli in split-second situations, there would have been no evolutionary pressure for phenomenal consciousness to tag along and “dangle” half a second behind the real important things going on in the world, such as a stepping on a snake or braking for a red light.
I believe that I can sketch out a framework that can reasonably explain how consciousness could happen “after the fact”, yet still have enough function that it could easily have evolved in the way that it did given the close-knit social structures of our early hominid ancestors.
Let us look at Blackmore’s example of turning around to look who just opened a door while you are sitting in a classroom. This is what seems to happen:(from blackmore)
- Consciously hear sound
- Turn around to look
According to Libet, it should be more like this:
- Unconsciously “hear” sound
- Turn around to look
- Backwards subjective referral of consciousness to make it seem like Scenario 1 is what actually happened
So how do we extricate ourselves from this mess? I think the first step is to recognize that you are setting up a false dichotomy of sorts by trying to directly reconcile scenarios 1 and 2 as the only two options. Furthermore, we should follow Dennett’s advice and use extreme conceptual caution when using the terms “conscious” and “unconscious”, because the nature of our language necessarily forces an implicit acceptance of the Cartesian Theater whenever we use the language of conscious/unconscious, and it is this intuitive dichotomy that makes it impossible to solve these kinds of philosophical problems using ordinary conceptual frameworks.
However, if we use the framework of enactive perception and attentional theories of consciousness, we will get a better understanding of why trying to decide between either Scenario 1 or 2 will only result in frustration and headaches. In my next post I will discuss an alternative way of looking at this problem. Stay tuned!
Libet, B. 1982 Brain Stimulation in the study of neuronal functions for conscious sensory experiences. Human Neurobiology 1, 235-42
Blackmore, S. 2004 Consciousness: An Introduction