Could Consciousness be an Illusion?

comments 30


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.


  1. thomatk says

    In what sense is Illusionism possible? Do you mean (1) it’s possible that my particular conscious state might be an illusion or that (2) Illusionism, as a theory, is a logically possible theory? (1) seems false to me (and I guess it does to you too) but then I don’t know how you argue for (2) if (1) is false.

    • Excellent question! It’s (2). I think illusionism is incoherent, but that it’s epistemically possible that it’s coherent. I think that’s a coherent thesis, no? People used to think non-Euclidean geometries were incoherent, but then discovered that they were coherent. All it requires is that my belief that illusionism is incoherent is fallible.

      • thomatk says

        Yeah it does. But…I’m rusty on this. I thought that since I am acquainted with my phenomenal properties if I could be wrong (it’s epistemically possible that I’m wrong) then I could be wrong that I am acquainted with phenomenal properties. If I could be wrong that I am acquainted with my phenomenal properties then I loose “phenomenal certainty”(?) If I loose phenomenal certainty then I am not acquainted with my phenomenal properties (since phenomenal certainty is a necessary condition of acquaintance (?)). If I am not acquainted with my phenomenal properties then my access to phenomenal properties is via phenomenal concepts. If my access is via concepts then I have no response to the phenomenal concept strategists…I guess my worry is that the epistemic possibility of Illusionism erodes acquaintance as a defence of phenomenal properties.

  2. John-Paul says

    Hello again Phillip,

    Once again, I feel like you’re implying a sort of bad name to science where the nature of ‘things’ with properties are concerned. As I’ve said before, we (students, academics, especially philosophers) need to abandon this narrow definition of science or neuroscience in this case. It may be necessary to distinguish subjects as though they are different but they all are encompassed by the same empirical sphere. Philosophy is a special example because it literally is no different to science, except science is more rigorous in its practicalities.

    Also, I don’t really see the distinction you suppose regarding what matter does, and what matter is, because it appears to be exactly the same thing if you talk about it in a reductive sense. Yet, I buy the distinction if you’re going to talk about a ‘thing’ holistically, but even with this, you cannot talk about what that very thing does without referring to a causal structure of some kind, or at least talk about it whereby in principle you could then talk more about it (based on how you described it) in a reductive sense. But presuming I 100% agree with such distinctions, why would finding the ‘nature’ of a thing with properties be any less scientific if you agree with what I basically said in the first paragraph?; the non-existing border-line between science and philosophy, and the actually doings/practicalities of philosophers and neuroscientists only differing in a matter of empirical degrees rather than two separate techniques with different foundations.

    • @Thom. Yes, I no longer sign up to phenomenal certainty. The knowledge acquaintance gives us has the kind of justification we find in maths, but it’s not infallible. Currently reworking book in the light of this.

      @John-Paul – I completely agree with you about the need for a liberal definition of ‘science’, but it’s my opponents who press for a narrow understanding. Dennett defends ‘third person absolutism’, that we should pursue only third person methods in understanding the nature of consciousness and matter. Patricia Churchland (who was also attending the conference) in her recent book rejects any alternative to conventional neuroscience as ‘nay-saying’.

      On the causal structure stuff. my claim is that the nature of pain – how pain *feels* – cannot be captured in an austere vocabulary of mathematics and causation. My opponents think it can. That’s a significant and interesting debate regardless of how we choose to use the word ‘science’.

      • John-Paul says

        I understand where Dennett comes from in that sense because although I take the position that we should believe our senses and we shouldn’t postulate a missing link between our consciousness and reality and how it might all be a illusional or a dream etc. but our consciousness does fool us, experiencing illusions is ingrained in our biology and there is good evolutionary explanations for this. Therefore I think Dennett is kind of right to take that third person view because its more reliable, and has been so. I would advocate both methods but if they contradict each other, the debate ought to be about which one has to give way, a debate that is far away for now, and in a historical sense, the third person view has been shown to triumph nearly all the time in scientific enquiries. So I don’t think he’s taking a radical stance by adopting that view.

        Well, why can’t it? If a theory of everything will explain cosmological and particle phenomena, then it will explain chemistry, biology, neuroscience, consciousness and ipso facto explain how pain ‘feels’. You say you agree with the broader definition of science, then in principle you are admitting that all subjects, although it may be necessary to distinguish subjects as different, they will still share the same foundation, one you can reduce to a scientific basis, regardless of all the stuff that is built on top of it. Which is what I initially said, but because of this, then it may also be necessary to explain pain, in the practical sense, in a holistic and subjective matter, and to understand the feeling pain in this way may be more efficient and useful but it doesn’t mean science/mathematics just can’t explain it, it just means science can’t explain it in a way that will be any use to us.

  3. When I read Rorty and Dennett I end up wondering whether their positions are self-refuting. To take Dennett’s illustration of the slot machine: put coin in at the top, get bag of crisps at the bottom. If that’s how he wrote his book, what did he think he was doing? Either he wasn’t thinking at all, or any thoughts he may have had were mere epiphenomena. The words on the page resulted from physical events in his brain. In that case, the chance of his book containing truth should presumably be similar to the proverbial monkey with a typewriter producing a Shakespeare play.
    I’m sure he’s got an answer to this, and I’d be interested to know what it is; but I remain suspicious. It feels all too similar to B F Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity. People’s behaviour isn’t really free, it’s conditioned. Knowing this, we can condition them to behave better. It makes perfect sense, if and only if ‘we’ are not ‘people’. Dawkins did similar in The Selfish Gene. Historically, the omniscient God got replaced by the omniscient class of enlightened Europeans.
    It matters, because this kind of social engineering has had a huge impact – communism, fascism, all sorts of social engineering ideologies over the last couple of centuries have been driven by the idea that ‘we’ know what is best for ‘people’ and they don’t.
    All spiritual traditions have a moral commitment to teaching people that other people have minds like ours. Our parents explained that we don’t like having a finger poked into our eye so we shouldn’t poke our finger into another toddler’s eye. So when Dennett argues for sticking to third person language the alarm bells ring.

    • Thanks Jonathan,

      On Dennett’s view talk of thoughts is just a kind of useful fiction. But along the lines of your worry, there is a worry about circularity if a fiction is itself a kind of thought. I’m more worried at his denial of consciousness as anything over and above behavioural functioning. I certainly agree that the whole project is driven by a misguided view of what ‘proper science’ should look like.


      Now it seems to me that you’re narrowly constrained what counts as ‘science.’ Of course we should be giving a scientific account of consciousness, but that need not be constrained by drawing data only from third person mathematical physics and related disciplines.

      • John-Paul says

        Well I did not mean to give that impression. What I was trying to say was Dennett is perfectly in his right to take the stance that he does about third person perspective because with everything else it seems to work, but obviously consciousness is not like everything else and all perspectives are valid it’s just some perspectives will yield more accuracy than others, I just don’t think we even know which ones they are yet.

      • Thanks. So is part of the problem that we’re working with conflicting accounts of what we mean by science? It looks to me as if there are two issues here. One is that reductionist materialists often work with empiricist accounts of science that predate Popper: roughly, so long as you collect your data carefully through the evidence of your senses, you get good science. This excludes not only first-person introspection but also more recent analyses, eg by Kuhn and Lakatos, about how we transform data into hypotheses using mental processes which haven’t themselves been empirically observed but are presuppositions of science. Secondly, is science being defined in ways which impose a taboo on actual or potential experiences of reality? And is consciousness one such? To take other examples, I am impressed by how the ancient Assyrians produced massive medical text books listing every illness, which evil spirit caused each one, which incantation drives it out, etc. It was all empirically worked out by trial and error – good science, except that they didn’t allow for the placebo effect, but all based on a belief in evil spirits which most of us today don’t share. Less systematically, ancient debates about the existence and nature of gods appealed to the evidence provided by the way the world was. The idea of separating that kind of speculation from ‘science’ was a late medieval invention and only popularised in the 19th century. My point is that if you rule out potential experiences of reality from ‘science’, then you are abandoning any claim that science can explain the whole of reality and opening up space for an alternative study of reality which has been defined – perhaps arbitrarily – as non-science.

  4. Pingback: HardProblem. Московский центр исследований сознания » Архив блога » Could Consciousness be an Illusion?

  5. I wrote some in twitter shown as follows:
    I am not interested in ‘First’. Please note brain has neuron which show memory, and which can be associative with synapse.

    And I received:
    Too few characters here but happy to debate on blog. I don’t think neuroscience alone is sufficient.

    Can I talk here?

      • Please note brain has neuron which show memory, and which can be associative with synapse.

        With neuron, human can feel past memory after a new input is one which is already experienced. That is most primitive (simple) consciousness.

        On the other hand, with input of BLUE color the human can associate sky if he has an experience of blue sky. This is also consciousness with associative memory.

        No. 1 is same as photodiode.
        Do you think consciousness is illusion based on above?

  6. I think neuroscience alone can account for a functional notion of memory and blue experience, but not a phenomenal notion. Roughly it can solve the ‘easy’ problems, but not the ‘hard problems’, see this paper:

    But perhaps you misunderstand me: I don’t think consciousness is an illusion, I just think it can’t be explained by neuroscience alone.

    Just noticed new comments my computer didn’t alert me to! Will reply next week…

    • I was disappointed to see “that was ‘easy’ problem.” Linked url is very old. And Chalmers’ explanation is always too far from simple one. Here is simple explanation:

      There is only one hard problem. (Other problems are all easy.) We can not say: My impression for blue is same as your impression for blue. This is hard problem.

      On the other hand input information is processed and expressed on the neurons. But then there are no hard problems there, because the information can be expressed electrically and chemically. In other words, it is easy problem if you think qualia for input. If you think qualia for output, it is hard problem.

      While we think consciousness mainly for input, there are not any hard problems. It is not necessary to consider hard problem any more from now on. (Qualia output is not used for consciousness actually. That is only for “thought experiment” which is not realistic.)

      With neuron, human can feel past memory after a new input is one which is already experienced. That is most primitive consciousness. If there is a hard problem there, please let me know (first question). With input of BLUE color the human can associate sky if he has an experience of blue sky. This is also consciousness with associative memory. If there is a hard problem for association, please let me know (second question).

      And we can explain consciousness completely with above note. Associative memory is identity of consciousness. And that is all.

  7. Aristophanes says

    May we ask, if consciousness is an illusion, whose illusion is it? Are these comments the result of one illusion talking to another? Am I the thing having the illusion, or am I the illusion?

    • I think illusionism makes sense if thought is independent to consciousness. So the thing who is under the illusion is the thinker: herself and her thoughts are not an illusion, but her consciousness is. She thinks she’s conscious but she’s not.

      However, I happen to think thought is itself a kind of consciousness, and therefore do not think that illuisionism is coherent.

      • jatclat says

        Maybe one way of approaching this is to ask about the evolutionary development. First we do things instinctively. Then we become aware that we are doing them. Then we ask ourselves why we are doing them and whether we might do something else instead. If this is the correct order, it looks as if thinking depends on being conscious.

      • Aristophanes says

        “So the thing who is under the illusion is the thinker: herself and thoughts are not an illusion, but her consciousness is.”
        So now we have four things: a thinker, herself, her thoughts, and her consciousness… but only the last is an “illusion”, and it is an illusion the thinker is having. What illusion is the thinker experiencing? Is she aware of herself, of “her self”? Or are only we aware of her?
        I think the reversion from first person language to third person is where a lot of conversation about consciousness goes off the rails.

  8. marksgotproblems says

    Great article. Although, I’d have to make one minor correction on ‘hypochondria’. The standard view is not that hypochondriacs delude themselves into believing they’re experiencing symptoms. In many cases they do seem to experience “real”/measurable neurological/physiological symptoms, such as GERD or palpitations. These just seem to have no measurable underlying cause.

      • marksgotproblems says

        That could be true, although I’m finding it difficult to imagine the kind of state you have in mind. Do you mean something like a belief that they’re in pain with no obvious reason why? Or that they *believe* they’re in pain when they’re *really* not.

        If it’s the latter, it seems if we run a reverse case in which a surgeon administers local anaesthetic to a patient before an operation, it’s difficult to make sense of the patient’s pain state in a similar way.

        I.e. it seems confusing to think that they’re in a state such that they think they’re not in pain when they are. They’re simply not in pain, whereas they would be in the absence of anaesthetic.

        Conversely, in the kind of state you have in mind, I can’t imagine how they couldn’t be in pain when they think they are.

  9. @aristophanes: They could be accurately aware of themselves and their thoughts, but they think they are having conscious experiences when in fact they’re not. Conscious experience seems to involve certain qualities: what it’s like to feel pain, see red, etc. They think they’re instantiating these kind of qualities when in fact they’re not.

  10. @mark I go back and forth on this. One much discussed example is someone who’s deceived into thinking they’re going to have a knife stuck into them, and then cold ice is stuck into them. They’re terrified and mistake the cold for pain. You might think they’re actually feeling pain if they’re convinced they are, but without some independent reason to think we can never be deceived about our own consciousness it’s not obvious to me that we are forced to that position.

  11. Daniel Asimov says

    I wish whosever blog this is would sign their posts . . . or at least include their name SOMEWHERE on each page. I have no idea who wrote this — not even a pseudonym for the author.

  12. I enjoyed your talk at this conference (on YouTube). In it, you had an interesting back-and-forth with Derk Pereboom. I’m curious if you’ve written anything on his Qualitative Inaccuracy Hypothesis?

  13. Pingback: Debate: Can Science Explain Consciousness? | Conscience and Consciousness

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