An economy of consciousness

by Suspended Reason

A response to Neil’s provocative What is an agent? post, where he discusses Freud’s notion that an individual agent can be conceptually decomposed into sub-agents, and that these sub-agents might censor information from one another. I agree with the decomposition, but I think the censorship metaphor—while common—is misleading.

Conscious awareness is often assigned a sort of default status—as if the self were automatically, and costlessly, self-transparent. Against this default self-transparency, we may sometimes self-censor, but the self-censoring is something additional laid atop” the default transparency, which obscures light from passing through.

This conceptualization is mistaken. Light does not automatically permeate so much as electrical pulses must be energetically propagated by burning kcals. Self-knowledge is always the product of internal communication among parts of the body, and since communication (both the process of reading and the process of writing) is always energetically costly (recall Maxwell’s Demon), this perspective on consciousness cannot be maintained.

Insofar as we grant self-knowledge (or consciousness”) a functional purpose, and insofar as we grant that self-knowledge also comes at a cost, we must also posit a range of usefulness to propagating various sensory and kinesthetic data across a system such that they reach conscious awareness. (We intuitively recognize the economy of consciousness in the way that many automatic processes, such as breathing and smooth muscle, remain unconscious: there is no purpose in making them conscious, until—for instance—breathing is threatened or disrupted.) And since conscious awareness (or attention) has a limited ~bandwidth, we can also conceptualize it as hotly contested real estate—contracted out, bid on by various organs, literally and figuratively speaking. These different metaphors point to the same fundamental spectrum, a spectrum as to the usefulness—and therefore worthiness—of propagating information to the point of conscious awareness or attention.

We must invert our assumption of transparency, and assume opacity (non-propagation) by default. If conscious attention—like the awareness of any quasi-entity in a complex system or body—is undesirable (decreasing the body’s competence) or merely minimally desirable (decreasing the body’s competence by means of excluding the propagation of other, more important information) then it will not be made conscious, on average across the long duree.

Understanding human behavior phenomenologically then becomes a relatively minor concern in the scheme of sociology. We should expect that some behavioral realities are systematically kept (not made) hidden from conscious awareness (see e.g. the work of Robert Trivers and Robin Hanson on self-deception) or else not worthy of occupying the limited real estate of conscious awareness. And when we perform introspection, we should focus our attention less on phenomenology, and more on the objective structure of our behavior, to uncover (i.e. bring self-knowledge to) those parts of ourselves that are—by default—hidden in darkness.