I had strings, but now I’m free.
There are no strings on me.

-Pinocchio

Peter Carruthers, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, had the gall to tell me today that any perceived control that my conscious self thinks I have is a cold, hard illusion.

That’s right, that beautifully evolved self-aware brain of yours has you duped. You think you’re driving this bus? Think again.

According to Carruthers, those deeply held beliefs of yours, decisions – big or small, and any goals you were pretty damn sure you consciously set (and then consciously failed at)… nope. You weren’t driving the bus. Well, not the you that you thought was driving at least. The unconscious you was at the wheel. Look, ma, no hands!

Choke on this excerpt from his OUP blog post: “There is control, of course, and it is a form of self-control. But is not control by a conscious self. Rather, what we take to be the conscious self is a puppet manipulated by our unconscious goals, beliefs, and decisions. Who’s in charge? Well, we are. But the “we” who are in charge are not the conscious selves we take ourselves to be, but rather a set of unconsciously operating mental states.”

That last sentence though. Really, Peter? My bus analogy was so much simpler.

This isn’t a groundbreaking concept, mind you. If it sounds familiar, it should. Nietzsche was writing this very same stuff well over a century ago, referring to consciousness as a simplifying epiphenomenal apparatus. He regarded the conscious as superficial, even dangerous, given that we are “presented only with a selection of experiences—experiences, further-more, that have all been simplified, made easy to survey and grasp, thus falsified.” (Writings from the Late Notebooks, p.30)

Side Note: There’s a continued debate (a complete circle-jerk if you ask me) as to whether philosophy is necessary anymore given that science has progressed as much as it has. Here’s a wonderful example of exactly why philosophy is not only necessary but complimentary to science. Nietzsche’s ideas about the nature of human consciousness are just now being proven by cognitive science.

“A controlling conscious self is an illusion.”

So if you didn’t already have enough to worry about, now you have to deal with the fact that you’re not really in control. Your unconscious self is in there giving you the impression that you’re running the show intenionally so you’re not ever aware of what’s going on backstage. We’re all marionettes who just looked up and saw the giant hand manipulating the strings. Holy Truman Show, people!

Seriously, let this soak in: We’re consciously aware that we’re being deceived by our conscious self—the self we see ourselves as being. Anyone else having a cow about this or is it just me? Knowing this changes nothing. You have no control. Even after Pinocchio cut his strings, Stromboli was still pulling them. It’s an illusion. We’ve still got strings. Sorry not sorry, folks.

But on the bright side, it’s a decent scapegoat for when you screw up. “Oh no, that wasn’t me. That was my unconscious self. No for real. Science!”

Take a moment to read the full article because the stuff about our “global workspace” is mind-blowingly cool.

Advertisements