There is much in Bridgeman's account that I find congenial and compelling, especially appealing is Bridgeman's application of his thesis to the tie between consciousness and language. Nonetheless, I want to raise some questions about whether the tie he finds between plans and consciousness actually does hold. Not all memory and attention is conscious. Although attention and accessing of memories are required to execute plans, we need not be at all conscious of the relevant states of memory and attention. Nor need we be conscious of the objects that those acts of attention and accessed memories are about. We need not necessarily appeal to the executing of plans to explain the important tie between language and consciousness.
1.2 Especially appealing is Bridgeman's application of his thesis to the tie between consciousness and language. It seems that we're always conscious of what we say; i.e., whenever we say anything at all, we're conscious of the thought we thereby express. But it's far from clear how this can be explained. Bridgeman sees linguistic performances as a special case of the executing of plans. He therefore proposes that we're always conscious of the thoughts expressed in our speech acts because of the close tie consciousness has to the executing of plans.
1.3 There is much in Bridgeman's account that I find congenial and compelling. Nonetheless, I want to raise some questions about whether the tie he finds between plans and consciousness actually does hold. The reason Bridgeman holds that "consciousness appears... in [connection with] the plan currently being executed" (2.8) is presumably that "[t]his plan must... have access to memory and attention" (2.7). And although he doesn't mention them, perhaps he would say the same of cognitive processes other than memory and attention that also figure in the guiding and adjusting of behavior. He concludes that "[c]onsciousness of events, actions and ideas is nothing more or less than a result of the operation of this mechanism [for executing plans], along with its requisite memory functions" (2.8).
1.4 But not all memory and attention is conscious. Nor is the executing of plans always conscious. So, although attention and accessing of memories are required to execute plans, we need not be at all conscious of the relevant states of memory and attention. Nor need we be conscious of the objects that those acts of attention and accessed memories are about.
1.5 Bridgeman notes that even if planning is necessary for consciousness, it isn't sufficient. When plans are "very routine," for example, we may remain unaware of what we do in executing them. But he suggests that even routine planning is sufficient for consciousness when certain other conditions hold, such as those which Norman and Shallice (1980) put forth as "requir[ing] `deliberate attentional resources'" (2.10). These other conditions involve such things as danger, novelty, trouble shooting, decision making, and the need for some special effort or concentration.
1.6 It's unclear that this will do. One can react to danger or novel situations, even in moderately elaborate ways, without being conscious of what one is doing; consider, for example, battlefield situations. Even decision making and trouble shooting can occur without being conscious. Adjusting, monitoring, and modulating behavior, accessing relevant information, and reacting to unforeseen contingencies can all occur in the course of executing plans without being in any way conscious. Perhaps it is more likely that the other conditions -- perceived technical difficulty, resisting temptation, and overcoming habit -- will make one conscious of what one is doing in executing plans. But sometimes we resist temptation or habit nonconsciously, for example, in avoiding situations where we're likely to want to smoke without being conscious that that's what we're doing.
1.7 Bridgeman thinks we may remain unaware of executing very routine plans that don't satisfy conditions such as Norman and Shallice's because those cases "leave the planning mechanism free to engage in other activities" (2.10). He assumes that if the planning mechanism is operating, we'll be conscious of what we're doing. This isn't obvious, since planning and guiding behavior often occur without being conscious. Perhaps when we're conscious of these things what is responsible is not the operation of the planning mechanism, but rather the special kind of effort or attention that's involved in those cases.
1.8 Our commonsense conceptions may cloud the issue here. It's natural to think of our framing and executing of plans as taking control of our own behavior; indeed, Bridgeman himself writes of "the planning process taking control of behavior" (2.9). Moreover, the commonsense idea of taking control of our own behavior involves taking control consciously. This is not because taking control of our own behavior is invariably conscious, however, but because in commonsense situations we are typically concerned only with mental states and processes that are conscious. It is for this reason that when we describe somebody as thinking something or solving a problem we normally mean that the person does those things consciously. However, it is plainly question begging in this context to restrict ourselves to cases in which we're conscious of planning or taking control of our behavior.
1.9 Given that much mental activity is plainly not conscious, Bridgeman's thesis is especially inviting as an answer to the question of how consciousness may have evolved. But often when we take control of things consciously, we do less well than when we go largely on "automatic pilot," even in very complex and novel situations. After all, what's needed to negotiate our way through the world is figuring out what to do in various situations; why would conscious thinking be more efficacious than thinking that is not conscious? To explain selective pressure for consciousness one would have to show why beliefs and desires of which we're conscious enable us to calculate our interests more efficiently than beliefs and desires of which we're not.
1.10 As Bridgeman notes, it is a striking fact that we are aware of what we say. That is, when we say something, the thought we thereby express is conscious. Bridgeman sees language use as a special case of the executing of plans, namely, plans to communicate with others. So he suggests explaining why we're always conscious of what we say by reference to the tie between consciousness and the executing of plans.
1.11 Even apart from doubts about that tie, there is reason to question this explanation. Bridgeman emphasizes that we're not always conscious of what we communicate nonlinguistically. He takes that to support his explanation of our always being conscious of what we communicate linguistically, since we "produce [nonlingustic communications] without planning" (3.5). That is not always so, however. We often communicate our thoughts and feelings nonlinguistically by producing gestures. Sometimes these gestures are so subtle that planning must have been involved in producing them, but we are still not conscious of the gestures, presumably because the planning itself wasn't conscious. Bridgeman's examples are laughs and other vocal productions, rather than gestures. But in complex social situations it is plausible to think that these behaviors too may result from planning that is not conscious. What matters is not whether planning is involved in our communicative behavior but whether that planning is conscious. Here again a tacit assumption seems operative that all planning -- all control of our own behavior -- is conscious planning.
1.13 Bridgeman overstates things somewhat when he says we're always conscious not only of what we say but also of what others say to us (3.5); we're conscious of what others say to us only when we linguistically process their remarks. Nor does it matter whether or not others communicate linguistically. Whether another person's communicative act is linguistic or nonlinguistic, if we process it, we'll be aware of it; otherwise we may not be. This weakens the suggestion that the special tie between language and consciousness is due to the social and communicative dimension of language.
1.14 More important, we need not invoke that dimension to explain the tie between language and consciousness. We can explain it by appeal to a connection between speech acts and the thoughts they express, a connection that is independent of whether any communication is involved. We express our thoughts and emotions both linguistically and nonlinguistically. But when we express a thought or feeling linguistically, we're invariably conscious of that mental state, whereas frequently we aren't conscious of a thought or feeling that we express nonlinguistically. How can we explain this?
1.15 In the case of creatures that can linguistically report their own mental states, such a state is conscious if, and only if, the creature can report being in that state. (This is subject to certain qualifications that don't affect the present argument.) Moreover, whenever a creature says it's raining, given that it has the requisite concepts, it could as easily have said that it thinks it's raining. This is because in any circumstances in which one could say the one thing one could equally well say the other (again subject to minor qualifications that don't matter here).
1.16 Interesting things follow. Whenever I say it's raining, I could as easily have said that I think it's raining. But saying I think it's raining would constitute a report of my thought that it's raining. So whenever I say it's raining, I have the ability to report the thought my speech act expresses. And, since the ability to report a mental state coincides with its being conscious, whenever I say anything, the mental state I express will be conscious.
1.17 This does not, of course, work for nonlinguistic expressions of one's mental states, because when one expresses one's thoughts or emotions nonlinguistically, it is not in general true that one could as easily have reported those mental states. If I say something's funny, thereby expressing my thought linguistically, I could as easily have said I think that thing's funny, thereby reporting that thought. But when I express that thought nonlinguistically, it may not be that I could have as easily said, using words, that I think the thing is funny. Accordingly, we can express our mental states nonlinguistically without being able to report them, and therefore without those states being conscious states.
1.18 This line of argument (developed at length in Rosenthal ) appeals only to those relations between speech acts and the mental states they express which are independent of the social, communicative context. So we need not appeal to the executing of plans to explain the important tie between language and consciousness.
Bridgeman, Bruce (1992) On the Evolution of Consciousness and Language. PSYCOLOQUY 3 (15) consciousness.1
Norman, D. A., & Shallice, T. (1980) Attention to action: Willed and automatic control of behavior. University of California, San Diego: Center for Human Information Processing Technical Report 8006.
Rosenthal, David M. (1990), "Why Are Verbally Expressed Thoughts Conscious?", Report No. 32, Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF), Research Group on Mind and Brain, University of Bielefeld.