April 20, 2020

If we cannot control much of what we take in, then at least, surely, we can control what we put out? We control what we say and write, don’t we? (This is not a question about determinism. I’m asking about the phenomenology.)

Anyone who remembers early attempts at meditation will remember the frustration, maybe even the surprise, at how little subject to conscious control thoughts turn out to be. Try to stop thinking, and thoughts seem to get louder. But I am not really talking about that issue either. Let us assume that we have free will and can think. Do our thoughts determine what we say?

Julian Jaynes argued that they do not. We do not control our speech, at least if by “we” you mean something like “our conscious selves,” i.e., the bit of us that seems to be able to exert will to stand us up or walk us around, if it so chooses. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind:

Try speaking with a full consciousness of your articulation as you do it. You will simply stop speaking.

And so in writing, it is as if the pencil or pen or typewriter itself spells the words, spaces them, punctuates properly, goes to the next line, does not begin consecutive sentences in the same way, determines that we place a question here, an exclamation there, even as we ourselves are engrossed in what we are trying to express and the person we are addressing.

For in speaking or writing we are not really conscious of what we are actually doing at the time. Consciousness functions in the decision as to what to say, how we are to say it, and when we say it, but then the orderly and accomplished succession of phonemes or of written letters is somehow done for us.

I think he is right. Before I speak, I don’t usually have a clear conception of what I will say, thought I often feel a sort of “itch” or “energy” around some vague topic.

Instead, when I begin to speak in conversation, “I” express some high-level intention to convey a thought (often not yet well thought-through). It is a bit like doing some other habitual action, like standing up to go to the kitchen: it’s an abstract intention, and you don’t think about the individual footsteps you take. In the same way, you can’t easily think about each consecutive word while you speak. The words link themselves up.

I think this is what Joan Didion meant when she wrote (in “Why I Write”) “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”

We do seem to have some high-level control, which comes to the fore when there’s an awkward silence, or when we want to change the subject. We have veto power over things we might have an urge to say, but decide we’d better not.

But that is not the same as choosing the words. Some other part of the brain seems to choose the words for us. Those words and phrasings seem linked, inscrutably but inextricably, to the inputs, to what we’ve been reading and seeing and hearing. To what we’ve been thinking, of course, as well, though as I noted above, that’s none too subservient to us either.

It’s almost as if we have more control over the rate of input and output than we do over their contents. But if that’s true, is that just another aspect of method?

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.