The air we breathe, so long as it is neither too hot nor cold, nor rough, nor full of smoke - that is to say, so long as it is in that state within which we are best acquainted - seldom enters into our thoughts; yet there is hardly anything with which we are more incessantly occupied night and day.
Indeed, it is not too much to say that we have no really profound knowledge upon any subject - no knowledge on the strength of which we are ready to act at all moments unhesitatingly without either preparation or after-thought - till we have left off feeling conscious of the possession of such knowledge, and of the grounds on which it rests. A lesson thoroughly learned must be like the air which feels so light, though pressing so heavily against us, because every pore of our skin is saturated, so to speak, with it on all sides equally. This perfection of knowledge sometimes extends to positive disbelief in the thing known, so that the most thorough knower shall believe himself altogether ignorant. No thief, for example, is such an utter thief - so good a thief - as the kleptomaniac. Until he has become a kleptomaniac, and can steal a horse as it were by a reflex action, he is still but half a thief, with many unthievish notions still clinging to him. Yet the kleptomaniac is probably unaware that he can steal at all, much less that he can steal so well. He would be shocked if he were to know the truth. So again, no man is a great hypocrite until he has left off knowing that he is a hypocrite. The great hypocrites of the world are almost invariably under the impression that they are among the very few really honest people to be found and, as we must all have observed, it is rare to find any one strongly under this impression without ourselves having good reason to differ from him.
What is true of knowing is also true of willing. The more intensely we will, the less is our will deliberate and capable of being recognised as will at all. So that it is common to hear men declare under certain circumstances that they had no will, but were forced into their own action under stress of passion or temptation. But in the more ordinary actions of life, we observe, as in walking or breathing, that we do not will anything utterly and without remnant of hesitation, till we have lost sight of the fact that we are exercising our will.
The new-born child cannot eat, and cannot drink, but he can swallow as soon as he is born; and swallowing would appear (as we may remark in passing) to have been an earlier faculty of animal life than that of eating with teeth. The ease and unconsciousness with which we eat and drink is clearly attributable to practice; but a very little practice seems to go a long way - a suspiciously small amount of practice - as though somewhere or at some other time there must have been more practice than we can account for. We can very readily stop eating or drinking, and can follow our own action without difficulty in either process; but, as regards swallowing, which is the earlier habit, we have less power of self-analysis and control: when we have once committed ourselves beyond a certain point to swallowing, we must finish doing so, - that is to say, our control over the operation ceases. Also, a still smaller experience seems necessary for the acquisition of the power to swallow than appeared necessary in the case of eating; and if we get into a difficulty we choke, and are more at a loss how to become introspective than we are about eating and drinking.
Why should a baby be able to swallow - which one would have said was the more complicated process of the two - with so much less practice than it takes him to learn to eat? How comes it that he exhibits in the case of the more difficult operation all the phenomena which ordinarily accompany a more complete mastery and longer practice? Analogy would certainly seem to point in the direction of thinking that the necessary experience cannot have been wanting, and that, too, not in such a quibbling sort as when people talk about inherited habit or the experience of the race, which, without explanation, is to plain-speaking persons very much the same, in regard to the individual, as no experience at all, but bonâ fide in the child’s own person.
Breathing, again, is an action acquired after birth, generally with some little hesitation and difficulty, but still acquired in a time seldom longer than ten minutes or a quarter of an hour. For an ant which has to be acquired at all, there would seem here, as in the case of eating, to be a disproportion between, on the one hand, the intricacy of the process performed, and on the other, the shortness of the time taken to acquire the practice, and the ease and unconsciousness with which its exercise is continued from the moment of acquisition.
We observe that in later life much less difficult and intricate operations than breathing acquire much longer practice before they can be mastered to the extent of unconscious performance. We observe also that the phenomena attendant on the learning by an infant to breathe are extremely like those attendant upon the repetition of some performance by one who has done it very often before, but who requires just a little prompting to set him off, on getting which, the whole familiar routine presents itself before him, and he repeats his task by rote. Surely then we are justified in suspecting that there must have been more bonâ fide personal recollection and experience, with more effort and failure on the part of the infant itself than meet the eye.
Seeing and hearing require some practice before their free use is mastered, but not very much. They are so far within our control that we can see more by looking harder, and hear more by listening attentively - but they are beyond our control in so far as that we must see and hear the greater part of what presents itself to us as near, and at the same time unfamiliar, unless we turn away or shut our eyes, or stop our ears by a mechanical process; and when we do this it is a sign that we have already involuntarily seen or heard more than we wished. The familiar, whether sight or sound, very commonly escapes us.
Take again the processes of digestion, the action of the heart, and the oxygenisation of the blood - processes of extreme intricacy, done almost entirely unconsciously, and quite beyond the control of our volition.
Is it possible that our unconsciousness concerning our own performance of all these processes arises from over-experience?
Is there anything in digestion, or the oxygenisation of the blood, different in kind to the rapid unconscious action of a man playing a difficult piece of music on the piano? There may be in degree, but as a man who sits down to play what he well knows, plays on, when once started, almost, as we say, mechanically, so, having eaten his dinner, he digests it as a matter of course, unless it has been in some way unfamiliar to him, or he to it, owing to some derangement or occurrence with which he is unfamiliar, and under which therefore he is at a loss now to comport himself, as a player would be at a loss how to play with gloves on, or with gout in his fingers, or if set to play music upside down.
Can we show that all the acquired actions of childhood and after-life, which we now do unconsciously, or without conscious exercise of the will, are familiar acts - acts which we have already done a very great number of times?
Can we also show that there are no acquired actions which we can perform in this automatic manner, which were not at one time difficult, requiring attention, and liable to repeated failure, our volition failing to command obedience from the members which should carry its purposes into execution?
If so, analogy will point in the direction of thinking that other acts which we do even more unconsciously may only escape our power of self-examination and control because they are even more familiar - because we have done them oftener; and we may imagine that if there were a microscope which could show us the minutest atoms of consciousness and volition, we should find that even the apparently most automatic actions were yet done in due course, upon a balance of considerations, and under the deliberate exercise of the will.
We should also incline to think that even such an action as the oxygenisation of its blood by an infant of ten minutes’ old, can only be done so well and so unconsciously, after repeated failures on the part of the infant itself.
a baby of a day old sucks (which involves the whole principle of the pump, and hence a profound practical knowledge of the laws of pneumatics and hydrostatics), digests, oxygenises its blood (millions of years before Sir Humphry Davy discovered oxygen), sees and hears - all most difficult and complicated operations, involving a knowledge of the facts concerning optics and acoustics, compared with which the discoveries of Newton sink into utter insignificance? Shall we say that a baby can do all these things at once, doing them so well and so regularly, without being even able to direct its attention to them, and without mistake, and at the same time not know how to do them, and never have done them before?
If we saw any self-consciousness on the baby’s part about its breathing or circulation, we might suspect that it had had less experience, or profited less by its experience, than its neighbours - exactly in the same manner as we suspect a deficiency of any quality which we see a man inclined to parade. We all become introspective when we find that we do not know our business, and whenever we are introspective we may generally suspect that we are on the verge of unproficiency. Unfortunately, in the case of sickly children, we observe that they sometimes do become conscious of their breathing and circulation, just as in later life we become conscious that we have a liver or a digestion. In that case there is always something wrong. The baby that becomes aware of its breathing does not know how to breathe, and will suffer for his ignorance and incapacity, exactly in the same way as he will suffer in later life for ignorance and incapacity in any other respect in which his peers are commonly knowing and capable. In the case of inability to breath, the punishment is corporal, breathing being a matter of fashion, so old and long settled that nature can admit of no departure from the established custom, and the procedure in case of failure is as much formulated as the fashion itself in the case of the circulation, the whole performance has become one so utterly of rote, that the mere discovery that we could do it at all was considered one of the highest flights of human genius.
(Excerpta from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Life and Habit, by Samuel Butler