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Which comes first, consciousness or behavior?

Philosophers from Paul Ricoeur to Daniel Dennett to Owen Flanagan, to name only a few, have posited that the sense we have of ourselves is constructed in narrative form, that is, in the from a story, with ourselves as the central character. We are, simultaneously, actor, story teller and listener to this story. As actor, we are aware of the previously occurring events and plot and have a general idea of where we believe the story is going, but at any particular moment we may be reacting to events that had not been considered or had been poorly estimated and both the events and our reactions to them only become incorporated into the story after-the-fact.

To me, the nagging question has always been how much of the coherent, story-like construction of our experiences occurs after the fact? I don’t find it difficult to conjecture that our normal way of operating is to construct our conscious experience and thus our narrative construction of events after we have already acted. Benjamin Libet’s research in which conscious decision making actually followed evidence of the brain’s initiation of actions, gives credence to this conjecture.  To the extent that our conscious experience follows our behavior, we can see it as a rationalization of our behavior, a putting the behavior (probably with some distortions of memory about the behavior) into our coherent narrative.

I can see two objections to the argument that consciousness always follows behavior. One, of course is the argument I have made before that we often do plan what we are going to do and then, in fact, follow that plan. When I get up in the morning and pick out clothing to wear today that is appropriate for the activities on my day’s schedule, I am making decisions based upon a narrative about my day’s activities and the appearance I want to present, which in turn is based upon my narrative about who I am, what people will think when they see me, what events will impinge upon me, etc. It is less plausible that I choose clothing and make up the story of why I did so after the fact.

The second objection is that the argument that consciousness follows behavior and is a reaction to it is based upon an assumption that behavior (and the brain related events that support it) is an event and conscious experience is another event, with one causing the other. Actions, however, as Aristotle pointed out, are meaningful behaviors.  Brain events can cause other physical events but they cannot, by themselves, result in a meaningful action. That action achieves meaning as a consequence of it being situated within a narrative. The narrative itself may precede, accompany or follow the behavioral component of the action. My flinging my arm out and knocking a lamp from a table as a result of my having been startled by the sound of gunfire behind my back is a different action than me doing the same thing as a display of my anger. But the two actions are not just different because of the after-the-fact interpretations I give to them; they are different as they are occurring. The behavioral sequences involved in the actions are orchestrated differently because of the conscious elements that precede and accompany each action. Thus behaviors themselves have a narrative quality to them, which occurs both prior to and  at the same time as the behaviors are occurring and may determine the quality of the behavior (do I hit the lamp with enough force to break it or do I lessen the blow so that it shows my anger but causes less destruction?).

The answer to the question of whether narrative consciousness precedes, and is a causal factor in behavior or whether its causal role is only an illusion (in fact a story we tell ourselves) and the narrative consciousness is always after-the-fact may be unanswerable. Both situations appear to happen at different times


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