Action Precedes Consciousness

The title of this article runs counter to what you've been told. That, dear reader, is the problem.

I assert that the natural way for the human brain to function is for consciousness to follow after action. And indeed, this is technically what happens no matter what you do. However, the civilized (or, as I like to say, the domesticated) way for the human brain to function adds a major complication to the natural process.

You (or “your mind", if we're being pedantic) can decide to make actions contingent on consciousness. There is nothing about the brain that prevents you from doing this. And this is the way humans have been taught to think since ... a long time ago. My guess is that this manner of thinking really gained hold during the Agricultural Revolution. However, the phenomenon itself may go back to the birth of language.

What does it mean to make actions contingent on consciousness?  Quite simply, it means this:

Put further actions (except the mental ones maintaining the contingency) on hold until certain actions have been transcribed by consciousness

For example, consider the dictum “Think before you speak!”  This means:  do not simply speak in a flowing manner; rehearse the speech first in your head — make it conscious — and then parrot it again with your voice.

What difference does this make? Well, for one thing, it slows down our minds and can even trip us up. If you play a musical instrument, try doing so while paying close attention to what your hands are doing. You'll discover how contingency-based consciousness can cause problems.

What do we make of our seemingly magical ability to learn a skill so well that we can do it “without thinking”? First, let's acknowledge that there is a certain habituation in the learning process; this is what has been called “internalization.” But a lot of it is simply a matter of having enough confidence in the skill to stop second-guessing ourselves!

You may remember this process happening when you learned to ride a bicycle. At first you thought about every move — making every action contingent on analysis — and that made it almost impossible to do because you couldn't think fast enough. But with a bit of success you started letting your “body” (actually, your brain guiding your body) do what was necessary. That allowed you to operate the bicycle far better than when you slowed down the process by thinking about it.

Indeed, sports figures often talk about “being in the zone.”  If they are talking about a quasi-mystical state where it seems like they've acquired spooky skill, it simply means that their consciousness has stopped interfering with their action. That is to say, while “in the zone” (or “in flow”, to use another common expression) they were not consciously reviewing action a split second before allowing it to occur (or “manifest”) physically (or, in some cases, mentally, as when you're talking to yourself). In other words, they were operating in the natural — not domesticated — manner.

I apologize for all the parenthetical qualifications, by the way. (This article is not well written.)

The Source of Our Problems

Most of the time, we don't actually need our consciousness to preview and seemingly precede action. (Actually, it precedes the manifestation, not the original, potentially do-able action which gets delayed by the preview.) So why do we do it? 

It may be that this habit arose from rules such as “think before you speak.”  The process of civilization — literally, living in cities — meant that we had to know countless rules that were far from intuitive. There were taboos and principles that were alien to us, but we needed to accept and adhere to them if we were to prosper in civilization.

At some point, however, civilized humans forgot (or, more accurately, were taught into forgetting) that consciousness naturally follows action. We became a species of second-guessers, chained to invented rules such as religions or governments might impose upon us. And when those rules became strongly-held ideologies, they resulted in one group of humans killing others.

One of the killers might even say, “I chose to kill those people; I know it was the right thing to do.” But the so-called choice, knowledge and rightness would be illusions. The underlying factors for the actions were established years earlier by the memes he or she was taught. The person is like a robot — albeit a conscious one — running a program. Thus, our problem is this:

Bugs in our mental software could destroy the human race.

It is by no means guaranteed that we will fix the bugs before we crash our species. The vast majority of species on this planet have gone extinct because they had the wrong tools to deal with their challenges. Our challenges are not bigger predators or colder winters, but glitches in the software we are running in our heads. And one of the biggest problems is that the software glitches include instructions to blind us to their existence. This is what I call “antiprocess” — the subconscious compromising of information that runs contrary to what we have been programmed to believe is true.

The mind virus can control its host to its detriment. This is not science fiction; biological parasites are known to do precisely the same thing. In any case, I assume you have heard of Islamist suicide bombers, or other people who die for their religious convictions (such as Jehovah's Witnesses refusing blood transfusions).

Like all replicators, mind viruses are made of information. And information about the problem can begin to eradicate it.

If you've read this far and are in agreement, then a solution is becoming more likely. If, on the other hand, you think I'm mistaken or even crazy, then either you're right or antiprocess won't let you see the truth.

A choice is being constructed in your brain. The universe is expressing itself through the opinion you are forming of what I'm writing here. By now you probably have an inkling of which judgment arose. That is all.


  1. I agree with you completely, although I am less frightened by the role of memes in the evolution of humanity than you seem to be (I am a follower of Susan Blackmore as well as Dawkins). For me, memes and their effects on the evolution of human culture are as important as the effects of genes on individual human behavior. Like Teilhard de Chardin, Lyn Margulis and Lovelock,I think of culture and species as more complex forms of being in the evolution of life on Earth. For me, memes are connective nodes between the individual and collective forms of consciousness.

  2. I'm not frightened by memes per se. What concerns me is the fact that their operation is (at this time) hidden from most people. As a result, they cannot see that their individual actions and consciousness are reflections of the larger ("collective") picture. The vast majority of humans make decisions in the absence of a staggeringly fundamental piece of knowledge about what they are.

  3. I've read over this article (after not having seen it for a while) and it doesn't really make clear what I mean when I say "action precedes consciousness."

    Basically, most people think their mind works like this: They take in various bits of data, think about it, consciously work out a course of action, then act. As recent experiments have shown, though, action can be initiated long before (e.g. 500 milliseconds) the person is aware of the stimulus.

    I suggest that in many (most?) cases, everyday actions are initiated before the thought process completes — the memes kick in with programmed responses. The thinking ends up being justification for the action that is already underway. To make things more complex, each justifying notion is itself an action. A whole bunch of stuff is going on before and beneath awareness.

    Add to this the "contingent" factor mentioned in the article and things become really complicated. Yet we do not experience our "being" in such a multi-layered, time-delayed fashion. It's all smoothed out — rationalized — into a seemingly single stream of consciousness. This is usually fiction.

    When we are in "flow," the singleness of the stream isn't so fictional. In such case, we're merely observers to something whose source we know we don't know.

    I haven't explained this very well. This is tough to talk about.