Our Brain is a Car

I’m going to try to lay out what my personal ‘Philosophy of Mind ‘ is. Most of this has been hacked together from a mix of Psychology and Philosophy classes, years of reading articles, and my own subjective experience. As such, it’s going to be fairly light on links and references.

On the other hand, our research into “consciousness” (what it is, how it works, what it’s not, how it doesn’t work, etc) is so basic, there’s little empirical support for any Philosophy of Mind (at least with regards to consciousness in particular) out there. So sure, I’m just telling a story. But… So is everyone else.

Picture a car, as generic or as specialised as you like. It’s an object that gets us from A to B, fast or slow. Not all cars are the same, and even two cars that are precisely the same model will (after a decade or so of driving) be quite different from one another in a variety of ways.

The car needs to be steered, so we need a driver. The driver determines how fast or slow we go, whether we turn left or right. The path the car takes, the path we take in life, is determined by the driver. Most Philosophies of Mind will talk about consciousness being the driver, and many folk who don’t believe in Free Will will cite, say, Libet’s experiment (and others) to demonstrate that we don’t have Free Will because we don’t know we’re turning the wheel when we’re actually turning the wheel (we notice a few fractions of a second after the decision is made).

I think the conception here is wrong, and my metaphor here is an alternative explanation: let’s talk about the passenger in the car*. Oftentimes on long road-trips, especially before GPS came about, the passenger would have several duties. One of them, of course, was looking after the radio and music selection. Another would be navigation, as the driver couldn’t exactly search a map while driving. The role of the passenger would be to direct the driver. Of course, if there was a sudden problem in the path of the car, the driver would deal with it, perhaps swerving to avoid a small animal, or slamming on the brakes to avoid a collision. Or sometimes taking a turn because a choice absolutely had to be made, but the passenger just couldn’t decide which way to go.

I submit that consciousness operates in the same way as the passenger. Consciousness is not ‘in control’ of our brains, and is certainly not the driver. But we do, to a greater or lesser degree, guide our general (long-term) path through life with our consciousness. Part of that can be skill, part of that can be down to distraction (sometimes the music is just too damn good), and part of that can be down to a general awareness of our role in determining our own future.

Of course, none of that takes into account the state of the road ahead (or behind), what turns are available to us, nor how bumpy the road is going to be. But that’s an extension of the metaphor I’m going to put to oneside for the moment.

So I think that all this neuroscience testing of our reaction speeds vs. the passenger’s knowledge of the driver turning the wheel of the car is misguided: we will never, ever, probe Free Will based on (what I believe to be) a faulty model of consciousness.

I’m pretty damn sure I’m not in control of this body. I don’t think about the fingers that are hitting each and every key as I type this, much as the passenger isn’t concerned about what gear the driver is putting the car in. The driver is simply all the other systems within your brain. I’m not simply going to call it ‘the unconscious part of the brain’, as that implies that it’s a single coherent whole, and the brain is far more complex than that.

Perhaps a better metaphor would be a bus, full of ‘drivers’ who occasionally take the wheel, while consciousness is someone who sits near the front and occasionally yells directions over the cacophony? Time will tell. But I’m damned if I can conceive of a set of circumstances by which to empirically test this particular model…


[*I’m not talking about Dexter Morgan’s “Dark Passenger” (though I suspect the seed of this metaphor was sown by my watching that show), as that is merely a restatement of the view that I’m trying to avoid.]

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4 responses to “Our Brain is a Car”

  1. So my brain is a car whose driver has a brain that’s a car whose driver has a brain that’s a car whose driver has a brain that’s a car whose driver has a brain that’s a car whose driver has a brain that’s a car whose driver has a brain that’s a car whose driver has a brain that’s a car whose driver has a brain that’s a car?

  2. A better title will be “Our brain is a roadtrip”—you have explained everything about the trip, why limit the brain to the car alone?

  3. I appreciate the comment.

    On the contrary, I think the metaphor can be extended to talk about life circumstances (being the road), and about the kind of trip one experiences. I might expand and develop this further in the future.

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