What is Conscious Thought?

I was reading this article the other day which poses an idea, or to him, a fact, but it poses this idea that we don’t really have any conscious thought. I’ll link the article, just so you can read it, though, I’m not going to reference it too much in this post, but rather just touch on it for a brief moment.

There Is No Such Thing as Conscious Thought

Anyways, his argument is, honestly, a very compelling and strong argument, and, in some ways, is hard to refute. But I’d like to take a shot at trying to refute his argument, or, at the very least, make an alternative case, even based on some of the premises he already stated!

He doesn’t go too deep in the neuroscience of the brain, and I’ll admit, that’s not my particular area of expertise either. But I have read and listened to a fair amount of neuro-physiological literature, and understand, mostly at an abstract level, of what’s going on.

Let me explain what I believe the premise he is trying to argue from.

First, we need to understand motivation, because that’s the driving force in all of our lives: motivation. Without motivation, you’d have no reason to get out of bed and do all the, seemingly, arbitrary things you do: brush your teeth, eat breakfast, go to work, have lunch, go home, hang out with your friends, party on the weekend. Let’s be honest, if you look at all the things we do, and there’s a lot of weird things we do, it seems as if they’re weird, right?

I was at Disney World this past summer and, although it was a magical and fantastic place, it did feel very odd in that, what exactly were we all doing? Why were we all here? To have fun? To escape from our boring lives? Why? I’m not exactly going to answer those questions, but it is going to lead me to my next point.

So, we’re creatures of strange habits, so strange, that the only explanation for this is free will, right? The only reason we would be so compelled to do the things we do is because that we, in fact, have the free will to do so, otherwise, why would we do them?

But what Carruthers, in his argument, states that we don’t have conscious thought, but the thoughts we have are simply the product of our brain in areas we don’t have control over, and thus, we are merely the spectator to our thoughts as if they were “passing by”, but we ourselves were not the ones who formulated them.

And this is how I’ll defend his argument. Say you’re at work, and out of nowhere, you start imagining a hamburger; a big, juicy, hamburger with cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, all sitting atop a warm, fluffy, bun. And suddenly, you realize it’s 12:00 PM, lunchtime. What do you do? You go to lunch. And what do you go get? Yep, you guessed it, the exact hamburger you were fantasizing about.

So now I ask you, was it you who produced those thoughts, or was it the part of you that was hungry that produced those thoughts? At first, it seems like the same question, no? Is it not me who was hungry, in turn, me myself that produced the thought to go get a hamburger? I would say no, just like Carruthers might argue as well.

Let me explain that idea here. Most of us seem to think we are the controller of all our thoughts and motivations, but we’re not. It’s more like, there’s a group of underlying competing emotions that seem to fight for control of the body and what thoughts emerge. And I can explain that, as well.

Back to the hamburger scenario. Now, you could say you produced your own thought to get a hamburger, thus, in turn, you went to get a hamburger. But what seems more likely is that motivational state of hunger produced your fantasy of the hamburger, which that drove you to go get one. Why do I say this? Well, once you get back to your desk, after lunch, you no longer will have spontaneous thoughts of food. The motivational state of “I’m hungry” has been satisfied, thus, a new motivational state takes its place, such as get back to work, which might be nested in the higher goal of making money, nested inside of the goal of to pay bills, nested inside of the goal of providing for family, and so on.

And the emergence of thoughts, which can be turned into actions, don’t seem to be products of your own creation, at least, insofar as the fact you know exactly where and how they’re produced. They seem to be things that emerge into consciousness, and you become aware of them, so, in a sense, they were your own, but in another sense, you didn’t know they were inside of you, that is, until they emerged or remerged, and it only seems like the proper motivational states will cause their emergence.

So maybe I’m not arguing against Carruthers claim, but I’m just expanding on it. So what it seems to be that, although we don’t have exact control of what thoughts do emerge, we do seem to have control of what motivational states we want controlling us, though it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Let me provide one more example, and even, let’s go back to the hamburger example. Say you’re driving on your way to go get your hamburger, and while you’re driving, just before you reach your destination, it’s within your sights, someone rear-ends you; you got in an accident, maybe through no fault of your own, but nonetheless, it happened. And let’s say it was so severe that now your car is totaled; it can’t be driven any longer.

What happens then? Well, suddenly, your motivational state of “I’m hungry” shifts to “I’m angry” and maybe into a new state of “I’m worried” and so on. You might forget that you’re hungry altogether. But here’s the part that seems to, in part, explain free will. We have the ability to shift between motivational states, more or less, at our control. Although you had, seemingly, no control over the emergence of this new “angry” motivational state, you can choose to ignore it in that you can continue to go and fulfill the original goal of “I’m hungry” by getting the hamburger.

And that’s very odd, I think. So maybe I do agree with Carruthers, but I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole and say, “Aha! That proves we don’t have free will!” But more so, I’m trying to say, that just makes the idea of free will that much more complicated, and even, the idea of the unconscious that much more evident.

And why do I say that? That’s because it seems as if, collectively, the thoughts that emerge “out of nowhere” appear to have loose patterns over time and across the world.

The only thing that I could compare it to is though Sci-fi movies which depict Artifical Intelligence. The robots, as portrayed in some movies, might be all, very much different, it’s as if they all seem to have this underlying thought or collective motivation. Usually it’s something like, they know they’re not real, that they want to feel something, or at the very least, they feel as if they’re more than robots. It’s as if they know they’re missing something, just they can’t pinpoint exactly what it is.

I hope that analogy made sense.

That’s what the Collective Unconscious, as first brought forth by Carl Jung, seems to depict. It’s as if we’re all pushing for a goal of some sort, something we can’t quite define, or even conceptualize, but these underlying motivational states seem to unconsciously be pushing us towards it. I don’t know if it’s even a goal, either, but it’s something.

As we’re free to rid ourselves of the limitations of our own body such as hunger, thirst, shelter, and so on, we can now focus on more “intellectual” matters, but that makes you wonder, what for?

Why should we focus on these intellectual matters? What’s the point of furthering human existence? I’m not trying to be a cynic or pessimist about this, I’m only pointing out that it’s not so obvious what our collective goal is, though there does, in fact, seem to look as if there’s at least one there, though, more than likely, multiple goals in which our unconscious motivational states seem to be pushing for.

But what is it?

Anyways, thanks reading,