With the progress of neuroscience, we've been enlightened about the limited (and probably biased) function of our consciousness. David Eagleman uses a newspaper metaphor to explain consciousness in Incognito (excerpts from Chapter 1 is available on NPR).
Consider the activity that characterizes a nation at any moment. Factories churn, telecommunication lines buzz with activity, businesses ship products. People eat constantly. Sewer lines direct waste. All across the great stretches of land, police chase criminals. Handshakes secure deals. Lovers rendezvous. Secretaries field calls, teachers profess, athletes compete, doctors operate, bus drivers navigate. You may wish to know what's happening at any moment in your great nation, but you can't possibly take in all the information at once. Nor would it be useful, even if you could. You want a summary. So you pick up a newspaper - not a dense paper like the New York Times but lighter fare such as USA Today. You won't be surprised that none of the details of the activity are listed in the paper; after all, you want to know the bottom line. You want to know that Congress just signed a new tax law that affects your family, but the detailed origin of the idea - involving lawyers and corporations and filibusters - isn't especially important to that new bottom line. And you certainly wouldn't want to know all the details of the food supply of the nation - how the cows are eating and how many are being eaten ? you only want to be alerted if there's a spike of mad cow disease. You don't care how the garbage is produced and packed away; you only care if it's going to end up in your backyard. You don't care about the wiring and infrastructure of the factories; you only care if the workers are going on strike. That's what you get from reading the newspaper.
Your conscious mind is that newspaper. Your brain buzzes with activity around the clock, and, just like the nation, almost everything transpires locally: small groups are constantly making decisions and sending out messages to other groups. Out of these local interactions emerge larger coalitions. By the time you read a mental headline, the important action has already transpired, the deals are done. You have surprisingly little access to what happened behind the scenes. Entire political movements gain ground-up support and become unstoppable before you ever catch wind of them as a feeling or an intuition or a thought that strikes you. You're the last one to hear the information.
This metaphor neatly describes some aspects of our consciousness: 1) it only reports a tiny portion of what has been happening in the world/your mind; 2) that portion is of relatively higher layers of the world/your mind; 3) it possesses no (or at least little) causal agency about the described events because the report is only retrospective.
From the third aspect in particular, you can draw an argument about the limit of free-will, which actually Eagleman did. The legal implications from the argument are highly interesting and controversial.
However, I'm more interested in whether or not consciousness is only retrospective. The current state of my consciousness (the perception of my PC monitor) is about the world some milliseconds ago; as a memory, I can recall some fragments of a certain event many years ago. I can monitor my current movement; I can reflect upon the past event and probably learn some lesson from it. But is our consciousness only about the past? If it is, doesn't it not make us only a worrier of what's going on, a negative person who cares only about the past, and, heaven forbid, a philosopher who just keeps thinking about what has already happened for its own pleasure? If so, what is the evolutionary advantage of our consciousness?
Gary Klein on Intuition and Higher-order consciousness
In this regard, I found "Insight: A conversation with Gary Klein" on Edge particularly interesting. Being an "applied" psychologist, Klein is interested in practical issues of the use of expertise in organizations. He wonders whether the current emphasis in modern organizations on checklists and formal procedures are valid. He acknowledges the importance of our intuition (which is never explicit or formal) in our practice. Below is his general account of System one (intuition (that you become aware of)) and System two (higher-order consciousness: second-order conscious thinking about the intuition that you're conscious of).
System one is really about intuition, people using the expertise and the experience they've gained. System two is a way of monitoring things, and we need both of those, and we need to blend them, and so it bothers me to see controversies about which is the right one, or are people fundamentally irrational, and therefore they can't be trusted? Obviously system one is marvelous. Danny Kahneman has put it this way, "system one is marvelous, intuition is marvelous but flawed." And system two isn't the replacement for our intuition and for our experience, it's a way of making sure we don't get ourselves in trouble.
If we eliminate system one, system two isn't going to get the job done because you can't live by system two. There are people who try, there are people who have had various kinds of brain lesions that create disconnects between their emotions and their decision-making process. Damasio has written about them. It can take them 30 minutes to figure out what restaurant they want to go to. Their performance on intelligence tests isn't impaired, but their performance in living their lives is greatly impaired; they can't function well, and their lives go downhill.
So we know that trying to do everything purely rationally, just following Bayesian statistics or anything like that isn't going to work. We need both system one and system two, and so my question is what are the effective ways of blending the two? What are the effective ways that allow people to develop expertise, and to use expertise while still being able to monitor their ideas, and monitor their actions?
Too often it's treated as a real dichotomy, and too many organizations that I study try to encourage people to just follow procedures, just follow the steps, and to be afraid to make any mistakes. The result is that they stamp out insights in their organization. They stamp out development of expertise in their organization, and they actually reduce the effectiveness and the performance of the organizations. So how do you blend those is an issue.
With this research question, Klein interviewed firefighters in their natural environment. Well, this is not exactly "hard science," but it reveals something laboratory models of decision making can't deal with. (You may recall the works by Hubert Dreyfus or Donald Schon. Yes, I'd like to read their books again, but this is another story.)
Back to Klein's account, I may classify cases that the firefighter report into two: easy cases and difficult cases.
How an experienced practitioner deals with an easy case
In an easy case, a firefighter doesn't ever think. He just knows what he has to do and simply does it. Here is what Klein's first interviewee surprised him by saying he follows the "procedures". Expecting the "procedures" to be a written manual or something, Klein was shocked, but soon learned that they were intuitive, automatic executions.
He [=the firefighter] looked at me, and there was a certain look of not exactly contempt, but sort of condescension, I [=Klein] would say at least, and he said,"I've been a firefighter for 16 years now. I've been a captain, commander for 12 years, and all that time I can't think of a single decision I ever made."
"I don't remember ever making a decision."
"How can that be? How do you know what to do?"
"It's just procedures, you just follow the procedures."
My heart sank, because we had just gotten the funding to do this study, and this guy is telling me they never make decisions. So right off the bat we were in big trouble. Before I finished with him, before I walked out, I asked him, "Can I see the procedure manuals?"
Because I figured maybe there's something in the procedure manuals that I could use to give me an idea of where to go next. He looked at me again with the same feeling of sort of condescension, (obviously I didn't know that much about their work) and he said,
"It's not written down. You just know."
"Ah, okay, that's interesting."
Something was going on here. It feels like procedures to them, but it's not really procedures, and it's not that they're following the steps of any guide, or any set of checklists. We conducted a few dozen interviews to what people were doing, and we collected some marvelous stories, and some really very moving stories from them about how they made life and death decisions. What we found was that they weren't making decisions in the classical sense that they generated a set of options, and they looked at the strengths and the weaknesses of each option, and then they compared each option to all the others on a standard set of dimensions. I mean, that's classical management-type decision-making, get your options, A, B, and C, get your evaluation dimensions, rate each option on each dimension, see which comes out ahead. They weren't doing that.
So an experienced practitioner in an easy case just knows which scenario he's learned so far best fits the current case he's dealing with. He just knows (i.e., be aware of; be conscious of) what to do. This knowing, which happens in the arena of primary consciousness (Edelman), came not from his linguistic thought (higher-order consciousness), but from his un/non-conscious processes. He did not "think" to choose the best options among possible ones. He just knows it and does it.
An experienced practitioner does not "think, decide, and then act": he just "acts as he decides" like a Samurai in action. Consciousness as an awareness of what he's perceiving is of course in operation: His primary consciousness is on. Yet, his linguistic, higher-order consciousness of thought plays little role. Then what about a difficult case?
How a practitioner deals with a difficult case
Here's a description of a rescue expert from Klein's work in a difficult case, where he had to "figure out how to make the rescue."
But then he [=the rescue expert] imagines what would happen as the [sic] lifted her [=the one to be rescued], and he imagines the way her back would sag, and it was a painful vision, a painful image, and he thought
"Too much of a chance we're going to do damage to her back, that's a bad option."
He rules that out. He thinks of another few options, and when he imagines each of them, they're not going to work, so he rejects all of them.
Then he has a bright idea, he has a clever idea. What about a ladder belt?
And he imagines it, he does what we call "a mental simulation." He sort of works it through in his head to see if there will be any problems, and he can't think of any. So that's the way he makes a decision to do the rescue.
This "mental simulation" is obviously a conscious act, for the rescue expert sees an image and a vision and makes a decision as he evaluates an option one by one. This function of consciousness is more prospective than retrospective. Through consciousness, he sees a possible scenario of the future.
Of course, the image and vision must be made up from the multitude of images and visions he's learned from experience. His un/non-conscious mind arranges the bits and pieces in a meaningful way for this situation and projects a coherent vision in his (primary) consciousness. In this sense, i.e., the sense that the vision is made from the past experience, the consciousness may be described as retrospective. Yet, more importantly, the vision itself is of a possible future, and we may say that this function of consciousness is prospective.
However, this prospective function of consciousness is not like a classical decision making process that modern rationalism assumes. To see a possible future, an experienced practitioner never stops to compare different possible future options: he just sees the one that comes first and examines it.
We [=Klein and his co-researchers] learned about how he [=the rescue expert] did the evaluation. He looked at several options, but he never compared them to see which was the best one compared to the others. He wanted the first one that would work, and he did this mental simulation. He did this imaging process for each one. That was the way he could evaluate one option at a time, not by comparing it to others, but by seeing if it would work in this particular context.
(By the way, this strategy of dealing with only one option at a time, never stopping to compare multiple options at the same time, is also suggested in Relevance Theory, when the authors are trying to explain how a listener/reader effortlessly deals with several possible interpretations that an linguistic expression allows. They explain in terms of efficient information processing.)
So, in a difficult case, an experienced practitioner does not begin an action because he knows that he doesn't know a good option (this is higher-order consciousness). He then "thinks". But this thinking is not comparing, examining and analyzing multiple options which you may associate with the word "thinking" (as modern rationalists conceive it to be.) The practitioner may "look at" several options, but never "compares" them. He comes up with an option, and he is ready to use this first option. But he is not yet convinced that this is good enough (higher-order consciousness, again) and he "thinks". But once again, this thinking is not really a linguistic examination (= the typical "thought" according to modern rationalists), but rather seeing things immediately. In this mental simulation, he imagines and gets a vision, and that is his "thinking," if we should ever use this expression. Or we may say that this is a function of higher-order consciousness that is not linguistic.
Let's compare an easy case and a difficult one once again.
An easy case just takes one step:Here's how Klein puts it:
(E1) An experienced practitioner gets an intuition un/non-consciously and acts upon it consciously in the sense of primary consciousness. (Note: decision and action is one and the same)
A difficult case takes two steps:
(D1) An experienced practitioner gets an intuition un/non-consciously and realizes consciously that he has to "think" (Note: this consciousness is higher-order consciousness).
(D2) He starts a mental simulation (his "thinking") and gets a vision. If it is a good one, he just acts upon it; if not, he goes back to (D1) and gets a second intuition. (Note: this higher-order consciousness is mostly non-linguistic except when he says to himself "Good" or "No".)
It's really a two-part strategy. The first part is the pattern matching to get the situation framed about what to do. Then the second part is this mental simulation to be able to evaluate and monitor an option to make sure that it will do a good job, and to use your experience.
I've started this essay with a general question whether our consciousness is only prospective or not. As we examined Klein's report on practitioners, we first confirmed that our higher-order consciousness (typical "linguistic thought" we associate with the word "thinking") played little role both in easy and difficult cases. However, in difficult cases, an experienced practitioner "thinks" in the sense that he deliberately starts a mental simulation and sees a future vision. But a more important point for this essay is that a practitioner's use of his consciousness is prospective. We can use our consciousness for our future in a very practical way.
This prospective use of consciousness (mental simulation) is to be distinguished with hallucination or illusion, that have, presumably, no practical value. Prospective consciousness in a mental simulation is advantageous for survival of the conscious being.
Given the limited function of our retrospective consciousness, that is, we can only monitor what our brain has already started to do, we sometimes wonder what evolutionary advantage our consciousness has for survival. Consciousness as a monitor may look like a nanny going after a little child to take care of the mess he's made. However, in a mental simulation (a practitioner's "thinking"), he can project the essence of his past experience into a prospective vision to have a better future. What our linguistic thought (linguistic higher-order consciousness) does may only be to say "Think!" or "No, it wouldn't work" to ourselves, but that makes a huge difference, because then our un/non-conscious mind starts again for a new task. Isn't this use of consciousness great enough?