Archive | June, 2014

Could Consciousness be an Illusion?

30 Jun


I recently participated in a conference which was unusual for a couple of reasons. Firstly it was held in a sailing boat in the Arctic. Secondly the consensus view of the conference was that consciousness is an illusion. This view, ‘illusionism’, is about as far removed from my own perspective in philosophy of mind as it is possible to get. Me the panpsychist, Martine Nida-Rümelin the substance dualist, and David Chalmers who splits his opinion between these two views, formed the official on board opposition to the hard-core reductionist majority. Somehow we managed to avoid being made to walk the plank.

However, I did come to realise that there is a sense in which my views are very close to those of illusionists such as Keith Frankish, with whom I enjoyed extended discussion on board. Both Keith and I think consciousness can’t be accounted for in a conventional scientific story: no neuroscientific theory is going to be able to explain why the brain has an inner life. But the moral I draw from this is that we must go beyond conventional neuroscientific explanations in order to account for consciousness (see my last post for a rough outline of the approach I favour). The moral Keith draws is that consciousness doesn’t exist.

I can’t imagine myself becoming an illusionist in the near future, but the conference gave me the opportunity to work whether I think illusionism is merely unlikely or whether I think it is flat out impossible. It certainly seems as though I have a rich conscious experience; for example, I currently seem to be experiencing a horrible pain in my left knee, which has a certain throbbing, aching character. Could it be that I’m actually experiencing no such thing, that in fact I’m just a non-conscious mechanism which has evolved to mistakenly think it is enjoying an inner life?

It has to be conceded that even the mere possibility of illusionism is hard to make sense of. Arguably facts about my consciousness are nothing other than facts about how things seem to me, and hence it’s difficult to make sense of the idea that I seem to be consciously experiencing an aching, throbbing pain when in fact I’m not. On the other hand, there is good evidence that we do, at least sometimes, make mistakes about our conscious experience. Hypochondriacs delude themselves into thinking they feel nausea; people sometimes mistake pressure for pain; there is interesting work showing that a feeling of anxiety can be confused with sexual attraction. If it’s possible that some of my beliefs about my consciousness are wrong, isn’t it possible that all of them are?

Ultimately, I think illusionism is incoherent because of my commitment to cognitive phenomenalism: the view that beliefs and other thoughts are themselves are a kind of consciousness experience (I discuss this view in this post). Given this commitment, even if almost all my beliefs about my consciousness are false, I am still conscious in so far as I have any beliefs at all, for beliefs are themselves a kind of conscious experience. However, this is a highly contentious philosophical position, and one I admit there is some possibility I am wrong about. In fact, I’m humble enough to admit that I might be wrong about all my philosophical beliefs (philosophy is hard!), and it follows from this that I ought to allow that in some sense illusionism might be true, no matter how strong a philosophical case I may think I have against it.

I maintain, however, that illusionism, although in some sense possible, is the most implausible philosophical position anyone has ever come up with [Which is not to say it’s bad philosophy. I think Keith’s work is great, even though it consists of  what are in my philosophical opinion some of the most implausible claims ever made. As it happens he feels somewhat similarly about my work]. I am more certain that I am currently feeling a terrible pain in my knee than I am of anything else, including the existence of the external world. Illusionism is even less plausible than solipsism: the view that my conscious mind is the only thing that exists. How have these intelligent philosophers who I had the great pleasure of interacting with in the Arctic been persuaded to take this view seriously?

I think it is rooted in a confused view about the lesson to draw from the great success of natural science. In the last five hundred years or so the project of natural science has gone extremely well. From the movement of the planets, to the evolution of life, to the fundamental constituents of the matter, natural science seems to be an unstoppable juggernaut of explanation. It’s tempting to feel that we’ve finally found something that works, something we can put our ontological faith in. For thousands of years before the scientific revolution philosophers struggled to find out what reality is like and got nowhere. Since the scientific revolution natural science has enjoyed success after success after success.

From this perspective, philosophers who try to look somewhere other than third person empirical science to try to work out the nature of the brain, or of matter in general, are ‘old school’, trying to drag us back to the dark ages. They are to be equated with folk who believe in magic, or deny climate change, or think that the world was created in six days. If physics has no place for magic, then magic doesn’t exist. Similarly, if neuroscience can’t account for consciousness, then consciousness doesn’t exist.

I have a different perspective on the history of science. The reason the physical sciences have been so successful is that, from Galileo onward, they stopped trying to give a complete account of the nature of matter and just focused on describing its causal structure; they stopped telling us what matter is and just focused on telling us what it does (I explain this in more detail in this post). My conscious experience is part of the intrinsic nature of my brain, and hence it is not surprising that neuroscience can’t get at it. It’s the job of neuroscience to tell me what my brain does, not how it is intrinsically. Once we appreciate this, it becomes apparent that the motivation to embrace illusionism is itself an illusion, rooted in a confused view about what the physical sciences have to offer.

At least that’s how I see it. I might be wrong though.


Here’s the boat on which the conference was held, courtesy of Dmitri Volkov, Daniel Dennett and the Moscow Centre for Consciousness Studies:


Here’s the on board ‘anti-physicalist’ team saluting the  revolution to come in philosophy of mind:


Here’s me trying to persuade illusionists that they’ve misunderstood science:


All photos courtesy of David Chalmers. I forgot to bring a camera.