The illusion of phenomenal consciousness?

Keith Frankish

Keith Frankish, the main proponent of illusionism in the JCS issue.

Philosopher Peter Hankins at Conscious Entities has a write-up on the November 12 issue of the JCS (Journal of Consciousness Studies) in which philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists such as Keith Frankish, Daniel Dennett, Susan Blackmore, and Michael Graziano, debate whether it makes sense to refer to phenomenal consciousness as an illusion.  Unfortunately the full text of the journal articles are paywalled, although if you are on a university network, or have the ability to access the site through one, you might find you can reach them.

Saying that phenomenal consciousness is an illusion is often met with derision.  The phrase “is an illusion” is meant to state that consciousness isn’t what it appears to be, but many people read it as “does not exist”, which seems self evidently ludicrous.  Which is why, while I generally agree with the illusionists ontologically, that is with their actual conclusions about reality, I’ve resisted using the “illusion” label for the last few years.  As one of the JCS authors (Nicholas Humphrey) stated, it’s bad politics.  People have a tendency to stop listening when they perceive you’re saying consciousness isn’t there.

And it can be argued that, whatever phenomenal experience is, we most definitely have it.  And that the perception of a subjective experience is the experience, such that questioning it is incoherent.  I have some sympathy with that position.

But as I commented on Peter’s post, after perusing many of the papers, I’m starting to come back around to the position I held when I first started this blog.  Conscious experience isn’t what it seems to be.  That’s not really a controversial statement to most neuroscientists or other cognitive scientists.  Maybe “illusion” is the right description.

The hard problem of consciousness is based largely on the observation that conscious experience is not subjectively reducible.  Because of that, from the subjective point of view, it seems inconceivable that physical matter could give rise to that subjective experience.  I’ve noted before that I think the answer is to ask what experience actually is.  But that inherently implies that it is not the irreducible fundamental aspect of reality it appears to be.

Saying that phenomenal consciousness is an illusion is provocative, edgy, and forceful.  As a statement, it requires further explanation.  But it also clearly communicates the basic point, that conscious experience, phenomenal experience, qualia, are not what they seem to be.  That introspection is not a reliable source of information.

It also changes the hard problem from the question of why we have irreducible  experience as we perceive it, to why we think we have it.  To be sure, this new problem is far from easy to solve, but it doesn’t seem to have the intractability of the original one, and I’ve already given potential answers to it in previous posts.

Just to be clear, no one really doubts the information processing aspects of consciousness, sometimes called access consciousness.  The question is whether there is really a distinction between access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness, the raw feeling of experience, the painfulness of pain, the redness of red, etc.  Subjectively there certainly feels like a distinction.

But we have no good reason to think that raw feelings are themselves anything other than information.  Pain is a signal that electrochemically traverses neurons and synapses from the effected body part to the brain, where key regions such as the anterior cingulate cortex interpret it as pain.  These are the information processing aspects of it.  The idea that this is separate from the feeling aspect is part of the illusion.

This isn’t to say that the illusion is a mistake we somehow make.   On the contrary, it appears to be an important evolutionary adaptation.  There’s no particular survival advantage to our introspective models giving us a rigorously accurate picture of the internals of our mind.  Instead, it gives us a simplified picture that is effective for survival.

Nor is it to deny the breadth, richness, and depth of human experience, or its intensity, or any of the things that come with it.  All that’s being stated is that the experience, for purposes of understanding the workings of the mind, shouldn’t be taken at face value.

So, by calling phenomenal consciousness an illusion, we quickly communicate that subjective experience is not what it appears to be, that introspection is not to be trusted, that the hard problem is itself an illusion, and perhaps focus scientific efforts more productively.  What’s not to like?

Yep.  Something tells me that this issue of the JCS will generate a lot of responses throughout the philosophy of mind and perhaps other cognitive fields, and that this is a question that will be revisited a lot in the future.

What do you think?  Is the illusion label going too far?  Does it, as Philip Goff, one of the critics in the JCS issue, simply show that people like me are “in the grip of scientism”?  Or are there other downsides that I’m missing?

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55 Responses to The illusion of phenomenal consciousness?

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    Saying that consciousness is based upon illusions is fairly straightforward, except that people extrapolate such a claim to “reality is an illusion” and worse conclusions.

    There are clues and if you walk people through them, they can reach a conclusion about what is and isn’t illusory. Take for example the simple fact that the lenses of our eyes project light entering those lenses onto a two dimensional surface (our retinas). We have no direct evidence of three dimensions, so we construct the third dimension using some simple rules and some brain processing. From this you can conclude that our perception of 3-D reality is an illusion or at least a mental construct. You can proceed from such evidence-based examples to reach a conclusion that we all construct a simulacrum of “reality” in our minds and correct it at a furious pace as we interact with the world around us. So, our mental construct is, if you will, an illusion or at least a virtual reality.This, of course, bears little on what reality actually is.

    But I have to ask, other than becoming acquainted with how our brains work, what is the purpose of this discussion? How does it affect anything we think or do?

    Liked by 2 people

    • For the philosophers, it’s a discussion about reality. For me, I have little doubt that the reality is something like how the illusionists see it, but the question is whether using the “illusion” label clarifies more than it obscures.

      For a long time, my attitude was similar to yours. It’s obvious that consciousness is not what it seems. But it apparently isn’t obvious to a lot of people. If we label phenomenal consciousness an illusion, it starkly puts that proposition out there, albeit with the possibility that people immediately stop listening.


  2. Daedalus Lex says:

    I’m not sure I grasp it all, but it’s a fascinating blog entry, so let me play. It seems you are role-playing Descartes in reverse. Descartes says we can doubt everything we know about the world, but we can’t doubt that we are doubting it. You concede that it “is incoherent” to doubt the fact that we are experiencing something, but what that something is is rather elusive. I would agree that this is “not controversial.” But maybe Goff is right. Maybe you are “in the grip of scientism” 🙂 I don’t know Goff, but to me one “in the grip of scientism” would be one who is bent on reducing subjectivity to something objective/neurological. What if we turn the tables and say the physical objective universe that science (including neurology) studies is just the objective abstraction of lived reality? Perhaps subjective reality is the real pith and marrow and all the neurological (and cosmological) data are just objective markers of something that is essentially subjective. (Didn’t Kant also work through something like this — that the phenomenal world is all an illusion or construct but that the subjective strategies for organizing that world are discoverable?)

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s always possible that idealism, the belief that consciousness is the primary reality, is true. Although if we engage in this degree of skepticism, it’s also possible that solipsism is true, that I’m the only mind and you’re part of the illusion. Or maybe it’s me who is the illusion and you’re the only mind. Or maybe we’re both part of a simulation that only started five minutes ago, with everything before being false memories.

      All of which is to say, it’s impossible to prove that the external world is real to a determined skeptic.

      However, the thing to ask is, how productive is this outlook? If what appears to be objective reality is an illusion, it also appears to be one that extracts painful consequences for not taking it seriously. Which is to say, if the world is an illusion, the illusion seems to have rules, and we have little choice but to play the game.

      Which brings us back to science and its methods, and what it tells us about how to affect the operations of the illusion / reality. It ultimately doesn’t matter whether objective reality is an illusion or not, only that it continues to behave according to the rules we learn about it.

      This means we could never know if we succeeded in creating an artificial mind, or saving or altering an existing one. But since we can never know whether any mind other than our own actually exists, we’re in the same boat.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Daedalus Lex says:

        Yes to science and its methods. It yields enormous info about the physical world, including the neurological world. I am like in you in if I say that what we call the physical world is an objective abstraction of lived reality, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t count. It just irks me when scientists, many of whom have made enormous contributions that I appreciate, say that science is the one and only way of accessing anything about the world and everything else (and Neil Degrasse Tyson singles out philosophy sometimes) is nonsense. I feel that I learn as much about lived reality from poets, philosophers, Greek mythology, and quirky roadside gurus as I do from science.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thanks Daedalus. I’m definitely not in the science is the only source of knowledge camp, and while I’m a Tyson fan, I don’t agree with his dismissive attitude toward all of philosophy. That said, I do think when science and those other sources contradict each other, science is the one we should pay attention to.


          • Daedalus Lex says:

            I have the same exact feelings about Tyson — a fan, though I think he’s a little naive about the discipline of philosophy. And when the contradictions involve facts about the physical world — e.g., evolution and global warming — that is definitely the purview where science takes precedence. (I love trying to figure out points of disagreement — to push the dialectic forward — but really we agree too much 🙂 )

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  3. Saying consciousness is an illusion makes most people assume that you mean consciousness doesn’t really exist. For most of the non-PhD readers, the writer better clarify fast that the argument is that consciousness isn’t what it seems to be, but still exists in some form. As I work on my next book, tentatively titled Transformational Awakening – I am starting from the perspective that there is a multidimensional spiritual consciousness beyond the 3D materialism of our brains. The more I research related topics, the more I believe that our experiences here are small, temporary, and relatively unimportant (except as kindergarten level lessons) in a much larger, grander scheme of things across more dimensions of space, time, knowledge, and awareness. That makes it very hard to see the big picture from our tiny vantage point. It is like hoping that Hamlet will discover and understand Shakespeare without being written to do so…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely agree that the “illusion” label requires immediate clarification. If I use it in future writing (I’m still debating whether I will), I’m going to be sure that clarification is always there.

      That’s a pretty expansive view, but it seems like it’s more based in religion, or perhaps some form of spirituality, rather than science and reason. Or am I just missing the reasoning?


  4. Michael says:

    Hi Mike,

    I have read your post, as well as the post to which your first link took me, and if I’m not mistaken the basic idea is that we are zombies fundamentally, but nature has developed some means or mechanism to produce the illusion of a subject having a subjective experience. The reason this strategy has succeeded in nature is because it makes the zombies so duped more effective in terms of survival and reproduction. I don’t honestly see much to take exception with here, but I think in some ways it’s the long way ‘round to stating what I think should be obvious.

    The reason is that I think from a hard and fast scientific perspective, by definition a subjective experience cannot be real. The only things that are considered to be real are those things that all subjective experiences reveal together—things that each and every “person” sees, but not those things that are only seen in isolation. I mean, of course many of us could do a simple experiment by ourselves, in isolation from one another, and if we’re all paying pretty good attention we could agree on what happened, but we don’t have the ability to do this with our subjective experience itself. I can’t really know what you presumably felt. So what is made real by the scientific method is the external object under investigation, and not the subjective experience itself. About all we could say about the subjective is that we all agreed on a particular observation. But that is simply data–not experience or qualia or whatever we call the sensation there’s more to it than a number. So other than the fact we are enamored of the fact we’re having our illusory personal experiences, there is really no merit to the study of consciousness to begin with. In the scientific sense, how could it be posited to exist at all? The zombies’ first mistake!

    It seems relatively simple to conclude that subjectivity cannot be studied using an investigative method that is designed to explore objective phenomena. From the perspective of science, I would tend to agree with you that there is no value from trying to get everyone in the boat regarding the hard problem, since it will only divert resources from research activities that would bring real progress in that domain. The only way in which a person can fall into the “grip of scientism” I think, is when the person insists that conclusions or insights drawn from subjective research are necessarily flawed, or that communities of practitioners independently investigating and reporting on their subjective research who discover experiential commonality in their inner lives, after engaging in extended periods of practice, are worse than duped zombies. They are duped zombies who don’t get it.

    The challenge I see is that IF inner experience is no different than the supposed reality of outward-facing observation, meaning that in our inner or experiential lives we are all actually investigating the same “thing,” as if we were ants all crawling around on the same great rock, then the scientific method cannot account for this possibility. It can neither refute nor ratify it. It is outside of its purview. The grip of scientism is for me the decision to invalidate the possibility that inner experience may in fact reveal a common point of contact, or an underlying unity of being, when science has no real basis for ruling on this point given its methodology. I think science ought to keep going and get on with it, as you suggest, to the undoubted benefit of us all, but it need not and should not serve as a basis for ruling on the nature of inner reality or experience, or the possibility of its validity.

    The challenge of course with such a proposition as an “underlying unity of being” is that any of us can assert at any time that we are not having this experience at all, and likely be quite correct. But this dismisses the possibility that the inner life, like the outer life, follows particular laws and may produce particular experiences or phenomena only when conditions merit. Those conditions may require discipline and training to produce, just as our outward-facing physics practitioners require years and years of training to produce and validate their own work, and yet in such cases the practitioners of inner/subjective investigation would be called by many scientists as self-delusional. This in my mind is the only time that practitioners of science overstep, when they assert to have fundamental knowledge of what is not the subject of their investigatory method to begin with.


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    • Hi Michael,
      I’m grateful for your thoughtful remarks. I agree with a good deal of them, although I see a couple points of possible difference worth noting.

      First, I think you’re right about the limitations science has in attempting to study subjective experience. Michael Graziano, in one of the discussion videos I’ve seen, used the example of a brain injured patient who had a delusion. The patient strongly felt that there was a squirrel in his head, and no one was able to convince him that it wasn’t there. The psychologist told the patient that they needed to figure our why the patient felt there was a squirrel in his head. The patient disagreed, saying what was really needed was to figure out how the squirrel got there.

      But despite the patient’s attitude, it would be pointless for the psychologist to attempt to study the patient’s squirrel, no matter how sure the patient is that it’s there. All that the psychologist can productively do is study why the patient believes what he believes about the squirrel.

      Science is in pretty much the same boat with subjective experience. Attempting to study it in and of itself to derive objective information is pointless. But science can explore why we believe what we believe about experience, and I think that’s a crucial endeavor. It’s likely the only way we can relate experience to objective reality.

      But I also think that science actually can study inter-subjective experience, that is common subjective experiences. Of course, these kinds of studies would be based on self report, but so is a great deal of social science. The reports can be recorded, quantified, and statistically analyzed. As long as we understand that the findings only pertain to the subjective, it seems like the studies can be productive.

      It’s worth noting the all empirical observation, the foundation of science, is essentially subjective perception. We never experience anything objective. We can only infer objective reality by comparing notes on our common subjective experiences. A good deal of scientific methodology is about helping us do that. But the objective is always a theory, always provisional, and always something we have to be aware could be the result a common delusion.

      All of which is to say that science can study a lot, but we always have to be aware of the limitations of its conclusions.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I think the illusion label is going too far, since most people do take that to mean “x doesn’t really exist.” Most people don’t consider all the nuances of what “illusion” really means. Take, for instance, a stick “bent” in water, or a mirage. In those cases, some existing thing or cause underlies the phenomenon, but the phenomenon suggests to us some quality that isn’t really there. The quality that isn’t really there is what stands out when we call something an illusion, not the actually existing underlying cause that isn’t immediately perceived.

    Geez. What a mouthful. Sorry about that. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • No reason to be sorry at all. I think you make the case as I’ve long seen it. What’s making me reconsider is that it seems like there will be confusion either way. If I say “illusion”, some will take it as a statement that consciousness isn’t there.

      But if I use phrases “isn’t what it seems” or “we can’t trust our intuitions”, it doesn’t seem to make the point. Someone always comes back and says something like, “Yes, yes, you’ve explained the information flow, but what about qualia, feelings, subjective experiences.”

      Maybe this is a problem with no good solution.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yeah, I’m afraid there’s no snappy linguistic solution, at least none that I can think of. I think the problem is a real one. But at least avoiding the catch phrase “consciousness is an illusion” will get you away from at least some of those purely semantic arguments, which can be very irritating. I think “isn’t what it seems” does the trick, or at least it’s better as a catchy phrase. You don’t risk giving people the impression that you’re saying consciousness doesn’t exist. Those real questions about qualia will remain, for sure, but at least you won’t be wasting your time explaining what an illusion is, or what you mean by illusion.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Tina and Hariod,
      The distinction between access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness is one I used to struggle with too. Access consciousness is all the information flow. When I see red, the red sensitive cones in my retina get excited by photons with a wavelength between 620-740 nm, which generates an electrochemical impulse to my thalamus and then occipital lobe where the concept of red is associated with the signal. This causes signals to my limbic system, which responds with returning signals.

      I consider what I just described as both the information flow and the experience itself (or at least part of it). To me, the information flow and experience are one and the same, just from different perspectives. But I’m often confronted by people who say something like, “That’s all good and well, by why is it accompanied by subjective experience? Why does it feel like anything to experience redness?”

      What then follows is a discussion about some variation of the subjective / objective divide. What I’m wondering is, would it be more productive to just say, “That distinction is an illusion?” They would almost certainly disagree, but then they always end up disagreeing after the long drawn out discussion anyway.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hariod Brawn says:

        Thanks Mike, and I suppose it’s one of those templates of understanding that we can either embrace or discard dependent upon its usefulness to us. Under the AI entry on Wikipedia it says: ‘Access consciousness concerns those aspects of experience that can be apprehended, while phenomenal consciousness concerns those aspects of experience that seemingly cannot be apprehended, instead being characterized qualitatively in terms of “raw feels”, “what it is like” or qualia (Block 1997).’, and which I have to say seems a bit nonsensical to me in terms of referencing an “experience that seemingly cannot be apprehended.” o_O

        Your explanation seems clearer in that you’re calling the experience (from one perspective) the information flow, and that accords with your general use of the word ‘consciousness’ as meaning both what’s apprehended by the mind as well as some theory as to how it may be doing so – they being the two aspects of what it is. Still, we could go on to say consciousness must include the sensed environment (i.e. the information flow doesn’t commence with the photons exciting the cones in your retina), as well as the brain and nervous system, so I suppose that’s another template we might adopt (i.e. enactivism/externalism). But then the word ‘consciousness’ seems to mean a lot more than being with knowledge, or awareness of apprehending; it sort of includes everything, potentially.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, I would say that there are two possible experiences described here. One is the ordinary experience of red. The other is the experience of red as a scientific concept: a wavelength, electrochemical impulses, etc., and this latter experience would be rare and can take on many forms. In other words, we don’t experience “information flow” except as a scientific concept. I realize this could be confusing for those who are used to thinking of experience and concepts as being two different things and usually spoken of as being in opposition, but we do experience concepts, they’re just not sensory experiences in the more basic and ordinary sense.

        Alright then, as for your question: I still don’t see, from your POV, why the distinction between access and phenomenal consciousness should even be brought up. It sounds to me like phenomenal consciousness IS “what it feels like to experience x.” Am I right about this?

        I think you should just say what you’ve said here:

        “When I see red, the red sensitive cones in my retina get excited by photons with a wavelength between 620-740 nm, which generates an electrochemical impulse to my thalamus and then occipital lobe where the concept of red is associated with the signal. This causes signals to my limbic system, which responds with returning signals.

        I consider what I just described as both the information flow and the experience itself (or at least part of it). To me, the information flow and experience are one and the same, just from different perspectives.”

        I pasted that whole thing because I think it’s important to describe “information flow” the way you’ve done here, so we have a clear understanding of what you mean by that. I think what you’ve said here is clear enough, and far better than using terminology that you might have to explain.

        Why not just say that the subjective experience of red is caused by information passed through electrochemical impulses, etc.? Or did I miss something?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Michael says:

        Hi Mike and friends,

        I’ve enjoyed this discussion very much and it got me thinking tonight, as follows.

        First, as I suggested above, there is a basic problem about what it means for something to exist. I view science-the physical sciences, anyway- as giving credence to objective phenomena. Those things that we all see out there in the world around us exist. And as Mike and I touched on briefly, in this view the P-consciousness as described below simply does not exist, as there is no objective evidence for it. There is certainly evidence for the ability of living creatures to respond to stimulus and to distinguish between various conditions, but no awareness of self or of what is happening (in the sense of qualia) is necessary to reproduce these effects. So there really is no evidence for the p-consciousness that I can see. It can all be explained in ways that are simpler than resorting to a self-aware consciousness.

        But we are loath to suggest the subjective experience does not exist because of our personal experience, so we try to squeeze it into the frame somehow. I think in doing so sometimes we are forced into the position you described, Mike, where the information flow and the experience are made identical. I think this is a very reasonable hypothesis, but only as the least bad of perceived philosophical pitfalls.

        To try and keep this reasonable length, how is saying the signals and the physical processes are the experience different from panpsychism? Isn’t it the same equation but stated in the opposite order: B=A instead of A=B? It seems to me to be merely the opposite side of the panpsychism coin. It is sort of like trying to distinguish everything from nothing. Surprisingly, it can’t be done. Subjective experience is either real or it is not, and if one is scientific about this, then subjective experience is not real. If one is willing to suggest subjective experience exists, and to say that it exists by equating it to the dynamics of matter and energy, then I fail to see how that is not some form of –psychism, if not panpsychism.

        To seek to avoid this outcome by saying it’s not some form of psychism because the experience isn’t actually real, makes little sense to me. Why state the equation to begin with in that case? As such, it feels like a form of denial, like saying it seems to be that way, but it’s technically not, so it doesn’t count. I can accept that it’s not the way it seems, but then let’s simply admit subjective experience does not exist. Then there is nothing to equate with a particular dynamic of matter and energy. But if it exists and we equate it with the dynamics of matter and energy—such that the movement of matter and energy are experience, then I think we have some form of psychism.


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        • Michael,
          You make excellent points, and your conclusions are the ones that many great thinkers come to. And indeed, based on the current state of science, panpsychism and illusionism are epistemically equivalent. The only reason we don’t just assume illusionism is because we each have, or at least think we have, our own subjective experience.

          In many ways, your observation about the implications of experience being information processing is similar to neuroscientist Giulio Tononi’s, who equates experience with information integration, and since everything integrates information to some degree, in his view, everything has at least a limited form of subjective experience. To Tononi, any system as integrated as a brain is as conscious as that brain. It may be an utterly alien consciousness, but Tononi believes it’s there.

          But a couple of points worth considering. First, illusionism isn’t as epistemically equivalent to panpsychism as it might first appear. Illusionism actually makes a prediction that should someday be testable, that there is a brain mechanism that makes us think we have subjective experience. If we never find that mechanism, then illusionism seems like it might be problematic.

          But there’s another issue, one that I think both Tononi and you overlook. (Admittedly I used to overlook it as well.) Just because subjective experience might be information processing doesn’t mean that all information processing is subjective experience.

          This might be clearer if we consider another example of information processing, a word processor such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs. Word processing is information processing, but not all information processing is word processing. A spreadsheet program is not a word processor, nor is a Pokemon game, nor a Netflix app.

          Now, we could get all metaphysical and argue that maybe the Pokemon game has small trace amounts of word processing in it, and that what we call “word processors” just have higher concentrations of it, but this ignores the fact that the Pokemon game can’t actually function as a word processor. You might could pull it off with a spreadsheet program, but it would still make for vastly inferior word processing.

          In other words, conscious experience is information processing, but it’s a particular application of information processing. If we ask what separates conscious information processing from non-conscious information processing, we have to ask what experience is for. What function does it deliver? Which gets into all my other recent posts about consciousness being a system that models its environment and itself as a guide to meeting its goals.

          This gets us out of panpsychism, but as you note, not out of psychism by itself. I don’t find that troubling, but the word “psychism” to me only implies belief in minds, so maybe I’m missing some broader implication?

          The consciousness as an information processing application is also compatible with illusionism, although it doesn’t depend on it. Indeed, I think whether illusionism is true depends on the perspective we want to take.

          I definitely think the idea that subjective experience is something separate and apart from the information or physical processing is an illusion, in the strongest sense of the word, and I think that’s what most illusionists mean by “illusion”, not that experience in any conception doesn’t exist.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael says:

            Hi Mike,

            I appreciate and agree with your points regarding the idea if consciousness is considered “information processing” then it must be a particular class to be meaningful. I think the key for understanding what you mean by illusionism was contained in this statement you offered… “that there is a brain mechanism that makes us think we have subjective experience.”

            I actually thought that was the scientific objective of neuroscience to begin with, meaning that given the way I defined scientific endeavors in my previous note, this is the obvious research goal isn’t it? To determine the manner in which dynamics of the physical organism give rise to the sensations of being? I wrote and deleted several notions in truncating my previous response, and one was the idea that if the subjective experience of “red” and “green” is an illusion with consistent physical underpinnings, then we must one day expect to see consistent neural correlates to the color red which are different than those correlated to green. In theory they would be the same from one member of a species to the next wouldn’t they? I think that is more or less what you are saying here, isn’t it? That one day we’ll find a consistent, objectively observable dynamic of matter and energy that essentially “is” subjective experience?

            But I don’t think strong correlations are the same as proving the correlation makes us think we’re having experience. To prove this what would we have to do? I’m stuck on my inability to understand how we can be tricked into having an experience if we’re not capable of experiencing anything. An illusion means that what we thought was happening was not—as in the Wizard of Oz, the experience is reframed and shown to be the product of alternate causes. What we experienced was not what we thought it was. But the raw experience doesn’t change, only the meaning we assigned to it. I think illusionism means that although subjective experience feels like it is non-physical, we can pull back the curtain and reveal the gearing of consciousness. We can point to that gearing and say, “See? That’s all it was…” In the Wizard of Oz it works because we understand how a microphone produces sound. In consciousness it’s much more difficult for me to understand because we’d need some mechanism that obviously produces subjective experience as itself.

            I think the leap that is hard for me is when the curtain is pulled back and we stand there, looking at the gears, and we point and say, “See!” then there must be something we’re looking at that explains how an external object or configuration of matter and energy produces an inner experience, and I simply can’t imagine it. No matter how finely we measure physical phenomena, at some point we have to say something like, “the experience of the color blue is that.” I can’t make sense of this sort of equality. I recognize it may be a personal bias or even a deficit of my conceptual capabilities. I also can’t imagine how we can test such a mechanism? We cannot build one and then have the subjective experience it provides, or we’d be it! Or can we?

            Returning to your linking of my thinking to Tononi, I have never read Tononi so don’t know if we are similar or not, but to I do not personally equate information flow with consciousness, and I certainly don’t think all information processing is a subjective experience. I don’t think, for instance, that the microchip in my calculator is having a subjective experience. What I have said here previously was that I think awareness is a fundamental aspect of reality, and that its interactions with material systems are strongly related to the properties of the systems themselves. I’m not sure I would even say that every coupling of awareness to matter and energy produces the sort of phenomena we would call consciousness. Awareness and consciousness can certainly be different things, albeit related, along the lines Hariod has described.

            When we get right down to it, I don’t know what consciousness is really, but I agree with you it appears to be related to processing information with a self-interest in mind, in some form or fashion. What I cannot fathom is how subjective experience is related to the survival argument, since no subjective experience is necessary in the explanation of the behavior we observe in nature. Is it? If it is I’d be interested to know how. That organisms seek to preserve their own integrity does not in my mind mean that a subjective experience is important to the process.

            Thanks for working this through with me, Mike. I’ve enjoyed it a great deal.


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        • Thanks Michael.

          You asked about the experience of red, green, and blue. I’m not sure if you know this, so apologies if I’m being redundant. On the back surface of your eye is the retina, where light hits after being focused by the lens in your cornea. It has sensory neurons on it. Some are rods, that get excited by the amount of light, but many are cones.

          Most people have three types of cones, red sensitive, green sensitive, and blue sensitive. (This is why computer graphic colors are expressed using RGB codes, because that’s how humans perceive.) So the experience of red or green or blue starts with the corresponding cones getting excited by photons of a certain range of wavelengths hitting them. The transmission from the retina to the vision processing regions of your brain is enormously complex, but the distinction between red, green, and blue start with which cones got excited.

          The reason I mention all that is to make the point that we already understand some aspects of what makes the experience of color what it is. We’re not totally helpless before the question of how colors are experienced.

          On illusionism’s inconceivability, you’re not alone. Many people have an extremely difficult time with it. It’s the main reason why the hard problem is so widely perceived to be a problem.

          But consider this. How do you know that what you remember from yesterday is accurate? We know human memory is very fallible, and there’s always the possibility that it’s become muddled. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of seeing a photo or video from an event years or decades ago, and discovered that it is different from how your remembered it, but I certainly have.

          Memory as a recording of what took place is an illusion. Memory is actually a reconstruction (a simulation) of what might have happened. But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like we have privileged access to our memories, but we’re wrong. Memory is effective as a survival mechanism, but not as one to necessarily provide accurate information.

          Now, think about how you know about your personal subjective experience. Can you introspect on the experience at the same time you’re having it? One of the JCS authors pointed out that we can only introspect retrospectively, in other words, by remembering the experience, even one that happened a fraction of a second ago. But memory is a reconstruction.

          So our knowledge of our first person experience, like all memory, is a reconstruction. It’s one that’s useful to our survival, but not one that necessarily provides accurate information. Yet, it’s the only way we have knowledge of it.

          So if the machine of the brain has an inaccurate model of its processing, one simplified for the purposes of making movement decisions, then the result is going to seem disconnected from that processing to the machine itself. And it becomes inconceivable to imagine how it might be. But that inconceivability is based on the simplified model, one that is effective, but actually a caricature of what is actually happening. (Michael Graziano noted in the JCS that he prefers the term “caricature” to “illusion”, and I can see some advantages now that I’m using it.)

          On why we have subjective experience, I think we have to ask what experience actually is. I think it’s the act of building models from sensory information, and then making use of those models in simulations. This involves making judgments about the results of those simulations, which brings in the felt aspect of sensations.

          We don’t experience these dynamics, because they are the very stuff of experience. Without it, we couldn’t make the movement decisions we do. A functional zombie without it would need replacement functionality, functionality which would likely just be an alternate implementation of subjective experience.

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          • Michael says:

            Hi Mike,

            Thanks for taking the time as you did to respond so thoroughly, and to walk me through the process of human vision. I knew that in the sense I’d read it before, but it was also nice to refresh! While this gives a meaningful way to envision how the human body keeps track of different colors in its environment, it doesn’t give any insight into the subjective experience of color, right? I mean, presumably based on the information gathered from the rods and cones in the human eye, a deterministic computer algorithm could be written that is capable of distinguishing when objects are different colors. But it wouldn’t necessarily need to be conscious to do this.

            On your descriptions of memory and introspection, I have a strong resonance with what you wrote. It makes sense to me on many levels and I believe in many ways is consistent with what various spiritual and wisdom traditions have to say about the human mind. There are, for instance, a number of teachings which suggest there is something akin to a “body consciousness” and that it is largely composed of those thoughts, feelings and memories that are related to identification with the body. The body is like a profound virtual reality engine, if you will, and it produces/provides the experiences, memories and self-preserving instincts that are built into it. This level of consciousness is considered illusory by various traditions, because it is something like a trap, so vivid and extensive that it does not obviously engender other modes of awareness that are not so directly tied to the memory records and sensed impression of a particular organism. So while undoubtedly you and I may be on opposite poles as to “why” the illusion occurs, I think what you describe makes a good deal of sense.

            I still have a hard time seeing how a simulation engine that produces both an observer and an observed can be understood to produce the subjective experiences we have. I think we know that physical signals containing information necessary to produce an image of the environment are transmitted to various centers in the brain. I also think we know that the brain “learns” the capabilities, physical boundaries and limits of the physical organism in which it resides and can quickly and efficiently do things like, estimate how long it would take us to run across a field, move the body’s fingers to grasp hold of delicate objects, signal our need to return to the surface of the water for more oxygen, etc. I think it’s obvious that a powerful information processing unit or biological computer could actively guide our body through the various dynamic encounters with the world, given these capabilities and others.

            But what I can’t easily see is how a firsthand awareness arises to witness some, or any aspects of this. The reason is that the information in the optic nerve is not the image itself—it is a signal of some sort carrying information about the environment. That information is processed in some manner, and we have the seamless experience that we are “seeing” the world. The leap for me is this: in all other aspects of our experience—(like watching movies or television)– sight involves the processing of visual information, it’s projection onto some sort of screen, and the witnessing of it by an already conscious organism. Clearly there are no auditoriums in our brains, right? So this imaging capability must be virtual. To the point of this thread, because it’s virtual, it’s an illusion. Seeing the world is no different than imagining it essentially. It’s just imagination adhering to the data supplied to it. But if there is some algorithmic process occurring that translates raw sensory data into a virtual image, how do we “see” this? How are we conscious of it, and of our imagination in general? The answer has to be that the witness is also virtual, but computers can do all of this without the need for or even the ability to generate subjective experience, right?

            My difficulty is that I cannot see how the existence of a physical process necessarily implies that some aspects of that process are “known”, and known by the process itself. No matter how we describe what such a process is doing for the software brochure, in its depths it is simply some form of computation, right? And if I accept this—that within the body information processing virtually creates a subject and object, and experiences the viewpoint of the subject—then we further must show why only some types of signal processing generate subjective experience, while others do not, as you said previously.

            Near the end you say, “I think it’s the act of building models from sensory information, and then making use of those models in simulations.” We know that we could write a computer program with current technology that could load in the properties of a human and a cheetah, build simulations about how quickly they move over and through various types of terrain, explore various pathways the human might choose to travel through the landscape, and select the one that maximizes the human’s likelihood of survival. But nothing about that requires or benefits from subjective experience in my opinion.

            At the end of this, who or what needs to be involved in making judgments about which path to take? That seems to be where you suggest the results are communicated through sensations, which I took to mean body sensations—which I agree is efficient—but I still see no reason to take an additional step like that. It could be that the virtual subject-object simulation needs to send its outputs back to the body, at points where the outputs will become new inputs to other centers of the brain that actually take action. I can see the way in which this entire process could be thought of as the experience itself, but see no reason why the conjuring of an experiencer adds any real computational value.

            I’ll stop here, knowing I’m one of those who probably exhausts the value of the discussion without seeing past the hard problem. I still think there is tremendous value in understanding how the brain functions, and I agree with the idea that it is running simulations and that our subjectivity is likely an illusion. I just don’t agree that the reason why is survival efficacy.


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        • Hi Michael,
          I think we’re getting to the part, the Cartesian theater, that the illusionists would say simply isn’t there, but I realize that is an utterly unsatisfactory response. So maybe a better way is to consider, what about subjective experience is superfluous to the information processing that results in behavior?

          For example, you mentioned first person experience. You make a distinction between the system generating an observer object and and an observed one. What about first person experience is not accounted for by those objects?

          If you’re wondering why we even have a self concept, how else would a system distinguish itself from the environment as its chief cause of concern? If we build an autonomous robot, to be successful, it would have to have a vital concern with itself. Unlike living things, it may not be its top overriding concern (a mine-sweeping robot is largely designed to be destroyed), but it would still have to have that concept of itself as separate from the world and the way objects in the world relate to it.

          Another way to look at this is to examine the various aspects of an experience and ask, what information is being conveyed by this aspect of the experience? Pain communicates damage. Severe burning pain communicates serious damage and that maybe we need to hide and heal. Fear creates a mental readiness for fight or flight. The vividness of red likely alerts us to ripe fruit (at least on the African savanna). The delight of a child’s laughter communicates that the next generation of our genetic legacy is happy and healthy.

          Now, I’m sure you can think of aspects that aren’t currently explainable, but can you think of any that have no conceivable explanation in terms of communication?

          When doing this, it’s important not to forget what you’ve already explained. We tend to think of an experience in its totality, so when we explain portions of it, there always seem to be additional portions that are unexplainable, but when considering this, we have to be careful not to forget about which portions we’ve already explained.

          When you do this, it gradually becomes evident that every aspect of our subjective experience has at least a conceivable purpose. If it has a purpose, it’s part of the causal chain that leads to behavior. For a zombie to generate the same behavior, it would need to have its own mechanism for handling this necessary processing of information. In other words, it would need its own form of experience.

          Of course, this will never feel intuitively right. That’s the power of the illusion, and why the hard problem will never feel solved to the satisfaction of many who are troubled by it.

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  6. Hariod Brawn says:

    Mike, when you say “Conscious experience isn’t what it seems to be.”, what does it ‘seem to be’ to you, as apprehended (i.e. not the back story)? My guess is that you might struggle to answer that; I certainly would. I need to grasp what you’re getting at here before I can go any further with this argument. You imply that experience is “not the irreducible fundamental aspect of reality it appears to be.”, but I’m not clear what ‘irreducible’ means here. How can experience, which codependently and conascently arises with the environment, sensory contacts, the apprehending mind, and awareness or knowing, be reduced? Isn’t the question labouring a bit too hard with the mind/body problem as a preexistent issue? Maybe I’m being pedantic and can’t see it? Could be!

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    • Hariod,
      It seems like we might be tripping over language here. I’m not sure what you mean by “as apprehended (i.e. not the back story)”, so my answer might be talking past your question. If so, feel free to set me straight.

      “How can experience, which codependently and conascently arises with the environment, sensory contacts, the apprehending mind, and awareness or knowing, be reduced?”

      From a subjective perspective, it can’t, just as a software bit can’t be reduced within the software paradigm, but a software bit is a transistor, and a transistor can be reduced. Likewise, experience can be reduced to the interactions between various regions of the brain. We can’t experience those interactions, since they’re the components of our unified subjective irreducible experience, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

      The intuition is that the experience is something separate and apart from those neural interactions. But we have no evidence that it is. Our feeling that it is, is the illusion, or at least one of them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hariod Brawn says:

        Thanks Mike, and yes, the language is tricky, as ever. To clarify(?) what I meant by apprehending conscious experience, then in simple terms I mean it to be knowing that we are having it, and nothing to do with how we are knowing we are having it (the ‘back story’). By my lights, it doesn’t ‘seem to be’ anything other than its own flux-like and ephemeral state, so when you say, “Conscious experience isn’t what it seems to be.”, then I would put it precisely the other way around in terms of how it’s apprehended: “Conscious experience [as apprehended] is what it seems to be”. I know there’s a discussion to be had over the idea of “knowing that we are having it”, but I’m not concerned just here about whether that’s an illusion, as if it is, then the illusion itself still has efficacy as experience.

        ” . . . experience can be reduced to the interactions between various regions of the brain.” I can readily agree that it can if the information flow were to commence (for example) with the photons exciting the cones in your retina, and assuming by ‘brain’ you mean the entire sensory system. The hesitancy I have with this reduction is that it implies a commencement of the information flow at the body’s physical boundaries, and yet the photons, the sound waves, the air pressure and temperature, the scents, and so forth, don’t all commence at that spatially defined boundary. All of those factors are constituents of experience, and as by your lights experience is the information flow, then isn’t there something problematical in saying we can reduce the information flow to the body’s boundaries, or narrower still, and as you do, to the regions of the brain?

        As ever, I’m picking away contrarily so as to further my own understanding; please allow me the indulgence, if you will.


        • Hariod,
          That explanation from the AI article seems unhelpful. There’s a better one in the Consciousness article that I think better clarifies the divide:

          Ned Block proposed a distinction between two types of consciousness that he called phenomenal (P-consciousness) and access (A-consciousness).[26] P-consciousness, according to Block, is simply raw experience: it is moving, colored forms, sounds, sensations, emotions and feelings with our bodies’ and responses at the center. These experiences, considered independently of any impact on behavior, are called qualia. A-consciousness, on the other hand, is the phenomenon whereby information in our minds is accessible for verbal report, reasoning, and the control of behavior. So, when we perceive, information about what we perceive is access conscious; when we introspect, information about our thoughts is access conscious; when we remember, information about the past is access conscious, and so on. Although some philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett, have disputed the validity of this distinction,[27] others have broadly accepted it. David Chalmers has argued that A-consciousness can in principle be understood in mechanistic terms, but that understanding P-consciousness is much more challenging: he calls this the hard problem of consciousness.[28]

          “The hesitancy I have with this reduction is that it implies a commencement of the information flow at the body’s physical boundaries,”

          I don’t mean to imply that. Minds are nexuses of information flow. Sensory apparatus catch information from the environment (in this case the photons from the sun bouncing off of surfaces and then striking the cones in our retina in patterns created by the topology of the shapes the photons bounced off of). But a nexus can’t exist unless it’s a nexus of something, which in the case of minds includes the environment external to the body as well as the body itself.

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          • Hariod Brawn says:

            Thanks for that Mike, it certainly seems more simple than the 89 types of consciousness that Buddhist psychology posits! wink As ever with these kinds of things – such as my own ‘awareness’ vs. ‘consciousness’ conception – then they’re ways of understanding more than pointing to referents which are as clearly distinguished. It seems to me that we can just as validly say that any mentative apprehending is a ‘phenomenal’ appearance, and also that we ‘access’ all such appearances, even in raw sensation, or pure perception.

            Is the point you’re making (as a question) that these A-consciousness experiences, given that they’re moreso the product of the simulation modelling you’ve spoken of, are ‘illusory’ due to that same modelling being solely what they are in themselves as A-consciousness? Raw sensation (P-consciousness) we might say is un-modelled, but then that doesn’t seem to fit with your assertion that any mode of consciousness is by default a model, does it? Can you clear this up for me?

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    • “But then the word ‘consciousness’ seems to mean a lot more than being with knowledge, or awareness of apprehending; it sort of includes everything, potentially.”

      Yeah, that’s the problem with discussion of consciousness. What exactly do we mean by the word “consciousness”? What are we including in it? What’s excluded? I think consciousness, like “religion”, “life”, and other complex topics, is a collection of many functions that we group under a convenient label.

      Based on brain injury cases, some of those functions can be absent and most of us will agree that consciousness is still there. But lose too many, and we stop thinking of the resulting system as being conscious. Which makes discussions about what is or isn’t included in consciousness difficult.

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    • Hariod,
      My current view is that no type of consciousness is unmodeled. What is commonly called “raw experience” is simply modeling at a layer of which we simply don’t have access to the mechanics of the modeling. But everything we know about neuroscience says those mechanics have to be there.

      Consider vision, which is something I discussed with Michael (I think on this thread). Vision comes from two eyes, from a retina in each that only has high resolution in its center, a center that has a big hole in it where the optic nerve is. There are something like 100 million sensory neurons on the retina, but only about a million (I might have the exact numbers wrong) nerve axons in the optic nerve.

      What this means is that the information transmitted by the eye is far more primitive and fragmentary than the visual field we perceive. The eyes are constantly moving, controlled by sub-cortical processes, to take in information. What gets transmitted back are changes rather than a raw camera type feed. Our unified visual field is constructed in the occipital lobe. In other words, that visual field is a model. We’re not aware of all the processing that takes place there to provide the “raw” perceptions.

      At subsequent layers, when we see, say, an apple, in our constructed visual field, a lot of processing take place, noting the object’s shape, color, and position, all of which are mapped to associations which, all together, make up the apple model in our brain. Once those associations are established, they trigger an exchange with the limibc system for an emotional reaction to the apple (yum tasty, or perhaps yuck if the last apple we ate contained a worm). Again, we’re not aware of all this, we just see an apple and feel the experience of seeing it. We’re just privy to the results, not the detailed mechanics, the modeling that underlies even the rawest perception.

      All of which is to say, P-consciousness is the one that is thought to be the illusion, although a better term might be that our introspected model of it is a caricature of what it actually is, a simplified model, effective for helping us make decisions, but not useful for understanding what experience itself is.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hariod Brawn says:

        Thanks Mike, and I should probably read The View From Mount Improbable again – it’s been several years since I have.

        And yes, so-called Raw Sensation or Pure Perception are of course themselves some rudimentary psychical representation; that is well understood. They establish themselves in consciousness as being defined, only upon repetition by the mind. We can sometimes see this process in action when we listen to another person speak. What happens is we take the initial hearing of the words in as auditory sensing, but they only become meaningful [in sensibility becoming understanding] to us when we ‘replay’ (so to speak) them in our minds, and which happens as if in the voice of the sayer, not our own voice. So-called ‘mindfulness’ is nothing other than the very rapid operation of memory. When we say to the other person, ‘I hear what you’re saying’, it’s actually a half-truth, and what we in fact are hearing (meaning what is comprehended) is our own memory of the other person speaking – we just don’t see that it’s so unless we’re extremely attentive.

        So, for me, this ascension of the sensibility to understanding is in the sophistication of (what you’re calling) the modelling. The initial sensibility is, as we both agree, a mentative representation – an incipient consciousness and first impression (i.e. a ‘mark’) – but the contouring of its definition which gives rise to understanding comes with re-presentation of the initial representation or mark. It seems you’re saying this is all modelling, which doesn’t seem too different to the way I think of it and as I just described.

        Personally, I don’t find the P-consciousness and A-consciousness business terribly helpful, but hey, horses for courses. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve never read ‘The View From Mount Improbable’. My knowledge of eye neuroscience comes from Neuroscience for Dummies. But I’d imagine Dawkins’ description would be vivid.

          Totally agreed that we live in our models, within our constructed inner world. It’s mostly constructed for us by lower level cognitive machinery. The people who argue that the world is a simulation have it right, to a degree. We do all live in a simulation, one constructed by our brains.

          I agree that the A-consciousness / P-consciousness divide is of limited value. But it does resemble many people’s intuition. A lot of people over the years have read what I wrote about how information is processed in consciousness, and then said something like, “Yes, but why is that accompanied by subjective experience?”, inherently assuming that experience is something separate from the information processing.

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    • Oh, forgot to comment about the “89 types of consciousness that Buddhist psychology posits!” Wow!

      Before it’s all over, they might have it right through. One thing my neuroscience reading is teaching me, despite how it might feel, consciousness is not a simple thing. Its architecture will almost certainly be the most complicated thing we ever study.

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  7. It doesn’t seem to me that the question here should be all that controversial. Who believes that reality exists exactly as they perceive it to exist? Educated people today realize that “red” isn’t out there in nature, but rather is manufactured as a product of the conscious mind. If no one is in a forest to hear a tree fall, yes there should be energy waves associated with the event, though “sound” is generally defined as a product of the conscious mind which detects such waves, thus mandating that there be no sound if it’s not so detected and produced for the conscious mind to experience.

    (To be prudent however, I mustn’t entirely discount an epistemological solipsism position, and thus that what I experience does exist exactly as I perceive it to, rather than as a perception medium of a seperate physical realm. I say this simply because the possibility exists in a technical sense, though I give it no credence.)

    Then on the other side, I know that it’s simply not possible for me to not exist, given that I’m quite obviously (to me) experiencing things. So from here it’s not possible that consciousness does not exist, and yet it seems quite assured that reality happens to be different from what I perceive (that is unless what I perceive happens to be all there is!). That all seems pretty clear to me.

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    • One thing I learned years ago is that there’s no rational argument to convince a radical skeptic that the external world exists. The only thing we can say is that, if the world is an illusion or simulation or whatever, then it appears to be one that can exact unpleasant consequences for not taking it seriously. And it appears to follow rules. It therefore still makes sense to study it. All of which adds up to, if it’s all an illusion, that illusion is our reality for any pragmatic purpose. (At least until it ends.)

      Idealists, who are skeptical of the outside world exempt other minds from their skepticism, even though there’s no more evidence for them than for anything else. Solipsists expand their skepticism to other minds, but often exempt things like their own memories, or even aspects of their mind other than the current thought. But if we’ve taken skepticism this far, I’m not sure why we should stop.

      In other words, I can’t actually be sure “I” exist, only the parts of me necessary for the thought I’m having at this instant. Maybe I’m a Boltzmann brain who cohered into existence a second ago, complete with all my memories and perceptions, and will dissolve in the next second. Or maybe you are. Will you still be here 10 seconds from now?

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    • Yes agreed Mike. But I suspect that this business would become sorted out if philosophy’s epistemology were to gains some accepted principles (and thus become more than the rest of its domains). We (I) need a practical premise from which to build.

      It’s not possible that I don’t exist (to me), given that I experience things (or “think”). This is a non recursive position from which the foundationalists can begin. Then with a solid foundation, what next? Well then coherentism can be explored, along with my two principles of epistemology.

      Principle 1: There are no true definitions, but only those that are more and less useful. Thus my proplem with physicists exploring “What is time?” and so on.

      Principle 2: There is only one process by which anything conscious, consciously figures anything out. It takes what it thinks it knows (evidence), and uses this to assess what it’s not so sure about (theory). As theory remains consistent with evidence, it tends to become believed.

      In my own solipstic reality (whether or not you or anything else exist beyond) philosophy and science are not right in this regard. I want more, and regardless of whether or not I have any future.

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      • Eric,
        This seems similar to the instrumentalism vs realism discussion we had, along with theories of truth. I’d say here that you have to be careful with the word “useful”. For example, someone who believes in, say, reincarnation, because they find it useful for psychological wellbeing could insist that the “truth” of their past lives fits your definition.

        From a scientific instrumentalist standpoint, “true” seems to mean that it’s either repeatable or otherwise verifiable observation (as in evidence) or can be used to predict future observations (theories). This is a pragmatic version of truth that I find useful.

        A realist might insist that truth is that which matches reality, but that’s a metaphysical assertion we can never know for certain. Not that it stops us from having fun arguing about it 🙂

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    • Actually Mike, if I’m not happy about scientists using the “truth” term for things which aren’t certain, then I’m certainly not going to condone this for reincarnationists. (Furthermore even without reincarnations, such a belief may indeed be useful for someone’s psychological wellbeing. I’ve never met a psychologically messed up Buddhist that I know of, though I haven’t met too many.)

      I’ll admit that from my first principle of epistemology you’re quite free to define “truth” to represent what’s been exhaustively verified through phenomenal experiment, though to me this definition doesn’t seem sufficiently useful. In that case we could experimentally demonstrate something to be “true,” even if it doesn’t actually jibe with reality, and so is what’s commonly known as “false.” Why wouldn’t we instead follow warrented humility, and so mention the strength of our beliefs given the evidence we have?

      Without “is-ing,” I find it useful to define the term “truth” to concern that which conforms with reality, and even though there is only one metaphysical truth that I can ever know to be true (and it’s that “I think”). Yes this position can seem hollow, but let me go further for something that I find quite substantial in a practical sense.

      All functional conscious creatures seem to build their beliefs in one essential manner — they test ideas that they aren’t so sure about, against what they think they know. Furthermore in the past few centuries some of us have developed an amazing community which has quickly brought the human unprecedented abilities. These “scientists” have taken the unique consciousness reasoning process to develop a vast field of generally accepted understandings regarding the nature of reality. (Yes religions have generally accepted beliefs as well, but through the opposing mechanism, or “faith.”)

      All is not well today in the exploration of reality however. Notice that the philosophy community has not yet developed its own generally accepted understandings regarding the domain of reality that it presides over. Furthermore notice that mental and behavioral sciences seem amazingly slow. But if reality does happen to function naturally, then there can be no special topics in the end. Therefore to the extent that philosophers study reality, their attempts to distinguish themselves differently from scientists, should be flawed — they should be responsible for crucial pieces of our ultimately singular “reality picture.” (Though to the extent that philosophy is practiced as “art,” then cheers to their separate distinction!)

      We mustn’t be satisfied with the failure of philosophy to develop a community with it’s own generally accepted understandings. To the extent that this aspect of reality study does not progress, more innovative thinkers will need to take the place of the traditional philosopher. And once we have a respectable community with its own generally accepted understandings concerning “epistemology” and so on, then perhaps the new pieces from which to view this puzzle will help our still downtrodden mental and behavioral sciences fit more puzzle pieces together as well? From the softest to the hardest of sciences, better epistemology should certainly help, though I’m interested in the whole of the reality which philosophy presides over.

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      • Eric, I guess it comes down to whether you think the word “truth” is useful, since nothing is ever known with absolute certainty. Even tautological truths assume that we understand what we’re talking about sufficiently to reach the purported conclusion.

        The problem as I see it, is that most scientists aren’t motivated in their work to find higher utility models, increasingly accurate predictive frameworks, but to find truth. Arguably, all they’ll ever find is ever higher utility frameworks. But the pursuit of truth is what typically motivates them to spend long hours in the lab, or go to remote or dangerous places to get the right samples, or any of the other difficult work scientists often have to do. (Well, that and the possibility of the prestige that comes from finding truth.) That’s not to say that they shouldn’t keep in mind the provisional nature of those truths.

        That and, again as we discussed before, the cumbersome language that would be required to avoid ever saying “X is true” or “Y is false”. That kind of caution might be warranted in professional papers, which typically do use careful wording to avoid asserting anything beyond their data. For example, astronomy papers discussing cosmologically distant objects usually refer to their redshift Z factor rather then their calculated distance in parsecs or light years, since the latter requires assumptions that might change. But for informal discussion, it’s just easier to say galaxy X is three billion light years away without all the caveats, unless the conclusion is more uncertain than usual.

        On being satisfied with philosophy not being able to reach its own generally accepted understandings, I think that comes down to the nature of what it does. Philosophy has always been better at coming up with the questions than the answers. The answers it does come up with, aside from the strictly tautological ones, are hypotheses rather than anything authoritative. Unless philosophy were to start doing its own observations and experiments (there actually is a controversial thing call experimental philosophy), I fear that’s about the best it can ever aspire to.

        That’s not to say philosophy isn’t useful. Many of the neuroscientists I’ve read reference philosophers like Daniel Dennett, Gilbert Ryle, or William James approvingly as helping to clarify the questions they needed to investigate. But getting the answers from a philosophical armchair seems unrealistic.

        Unless, of course, you’ve found a breakthrough in epistemology I’m not seeing.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Mike, I theorize that there are no true definitions, but from my own personal definitions of “1” and “+” and “2” and “equals” and “3”… it seems to me that 1 + 2 can only = 3. I don’t believe that there is any possibility for divergence given the specific definitions which I happen to use. So yes I do have use for a “truth” term that’s just as absolute as every other tautology. Of course tautologies aren’t instruments of reality beyond the language that I use, but nevertheless. Mathematicians surely have the same use for this “truth” term, though I think we all do. If nothing else such a definition of truth will be an absolute for us to soften up or corrupt as we please.

      This brings up a question that I find interesting. Is the one non language thing which I claim to know with perfect certainty about reality, a tautology? Upon reflection, no I don’t believe so. Yes it should be true that if I cannot think then I cannot possibly know that I exist, and that if I can think that I can (possibly) know that I exist. Furthermore if I am thinking (or if I am anything, really) then I necessarily must exist in an ontological sense. But regardless of that, I do have irrefutable evidence that I happen to be thinking right now, or whatever one wants to call it (as opposed to something which is defined to be true, and so depends upon definition rather than evidence). Thus I do consider this unique aspect of reality which I know to be true, to be more than a tautology. I wonder if you agree?

      It seems to me that any scientist who isn’t motivated “to find higher utility models, increasingly accurate predictive frameworks,” needn’t apply for the job. Why not do something other than figure things out for posterity? Why not sell real estate? As you say, scientists should keep the provisional nature of what we presume as “truths,” in mind. It might help if philosophy had some generally accepted epistemological principles for guidance, but there are none that I know of. I offer two, and for years now they’ve gone unchallenged at every instance that I’ve proposed them.

      Mike, I don’t believe that I can take you seriously when you suggest that you’re okay with philosophy asking great questions, but not developing generally accepted answers for them. This just doesn’t square with my perception of you, nor with the following statement that you made to Jeff in the next thread:

      “Some people who read this blog have been bothered by the fact that, while I love mysteries, I’m not content to merely marinate in them. To me, they’re problems to be solved. I have little in common with people who bemoan Newton for removing the mystery behind the rainbow. I can understand why people want to retain mystery, because it leaves open the possibility of all kinds of fantastic answers, but I prefer to know the actual answer.”

      Thus I’d say that you’re now toying with me to make the case that you already believe — or that reality is a perfectly interconnected web in which no interesting questions can be left to “marinate.” (Are you happy now? There I just “is-ed”!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric,
        On the question of whether or not you exist being tautological, I think we have to break it down somewhat. That you are thinking right now is, to you, tautological, since you’re thinking that you’re thinking. I know you disagree, but the further we move beyond that, the more of a theory it is.

        I think I exist, but what do I mean by “I” or “me”? Most of us accept that I can’t be sure that the “me” of my body exists, since “me” might be a brain in a vat or something. But what about the “me” of my experienced life? I can’t know that version of “me” exists since my memories could be false ones.

        All I can be sure of is that the momentary “me” thinking right now exists, but that “me” might be a piece of computer code programmed with a model of a broader self that doesn’t actually exist, or a momentary fragment of consciousness as a Boltzmann brain that will dissolve in a second.

        Descartes wasn’t as skeptical as he could have been. He accepted on faith that the mind was an indivisible unitary thing. Modern neuroscience and neurology don’t support that faith. Brain injured patients lose parts of their mind, indicating that any one part of the mind could exist in isolation with the other parts possibly being false phantoms designed to act like other mental modules.

        But as I said before, whatever the reality, to avoid paralyzing existential crisis, it’s pragmatic to assume that the overall mental me exists, that my body exists, that you and the other minds I interact with exist, and that the external world in general exists, although I have to be cautious in assuming that what I think I know is actually the way things are, whether those things are part of an actual reality or an elaborate illusion.

        On philosophy and its limitations, I wouldn’t describe myself as being “OK” with it so much as accepting the reality as I perceive it. Certainly if you or anyone else can find a way to improve the situation, it’s worth investigating.

        But my point in that quote was that I want reliable answers. I’ll take speculative hypotheses if that’s all that’s available, but I won’t accept any of them as authoritative without justification, such as scientific evidence, or logic that can withstand skeptical scrutiny.

        So, no toying. At least not intentionally. And it’s very hard to avoid is-ing 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes Mike, from that perspective I do agree — I must think in order to check whether or not I think, so this is tautological as well. It makes no difference that I have irrefutable evidence of this, unlike a language based tautology. Rather it’s just that the conclusion is mandated by the premise.

    Then as far as your quest for verifiable corroboration regarding philosophy and all else, I wouldn’t dream of you seeking anything less.

    As far as is-ing goes, yes it’s hard not to. I sometimes admit to myself, “That’s just an ‘is’ in disguise.” I try to do what seems reasonable however. For example, I almost never use the “assume” term anymore, and instead say “I presume…” I wouldn’t be so concerned about this business if I thought that it had been handled at least technically by David Hume or some other prestigious person. I’ve only looked briefly, but the ideas of Wittgenstein actually seem contrary to my “no true definitions” position. The Wiki post for “Ordinary Language Philosophy” for example, does all sorts of is-ing on things like “truth” and “consciousness.”

    I find so many disagreements where people are quite obviously working from separate definitions. Furthermore when someone presents a definition in order to make a point, I see jeering that this isn’t what the term actually means. Thus I’m quite sure that a formal principle is long overdue, and if this were to become the discipline’s first generally accepted principle, perhaps more would emerge as well? If philosophers do not begin making some progress in this regard, then it will be up to the scientists to get this job moving.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve long been struck by how many disagreements amount to different definitions. A case could be made that definitions should follow the common meaning, although that’s often not as simple as it sounds, particularly when reading material from different historical periods.

      For instance, if you referred to some as “gay” in 1880, they would have taken it as a statement about their mood. If you did so today, that’s almost certainly not how they would take it. And constitutional lawyers spend a lot of time arguing what specific legal terms meant in 1787.

      It’s also a difficult matter when the precise concept that the word commonly refers to either doesn’t exist or is unworkable. Then it becomes a judgment call whether to use the original word or come up with a new one.

      The example for this thread is “phenomenal consciousness”, “subjective experience”, or “qualia”. Do these terms refer only to the perception of experience? Or to experience as some ontological addition to the information processing in the brain, like a form of ghostly ectoplasm?

      I’ve long meant only the perception, seeing the perception as the experience, which has made me resistant to using the “illusion” label. But it’s become obvious to me that many people mean the stronger version. The problem is, use the word “illusion” and people assume you’re throwing out both the ectoplasm and the perception.

      I’m still struggling with the best way to communicate about this.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mike I certainly consider you to have the right questions in mind. To me ordinary language can work, since ordinary life can be obvious enough so that people are able to realize which of multiple potential definitions that a given person is referring to for each term. Still misinterpretations seem common, even given redundant information. Things get worse in academic settings, and worse still when quite speculative terms such as “consciousness” are used. But when a person like me is going against the grain to fix something that’s quite obviously broken, it would be nice to have fewer hurdles to jump. I’ve developed some very specific terms in order to potentially communicate my ideas, and apparently the field of epistemology is going to require improvement in order for such definitions to be considered legitimate tools of description.

      In that Wiki “Ordinary Language Philosophy” article, I neglected to mention that they even said this:

      The controversy really begins when ordinary language philosophers apply the same leveling tendency to questions such as What is Truth? or What is Consciousness? Philosophers in this school would insist that we cannot assume that (for example) ‘Truth’ ‘is’ a ‘thing’ (in the same sense that tables and chairs are ‘things’), which the word ‘truth’ represents. Instead, we must look at the differing ways in which the words ‘truth’ and ‘conscious’ actually function in ordinary language. We may well discover, after investigation, that there is no single entity to which the word ‘truth’ corresponds, something Wittgenstein attempts to get across via his concept of a ‘family resemblance.’

      Arrrgh! Here their treating humanly fabricated terms as if they exist to be discovered! No, the representations of our pathetic languages shouldn’t actually exist! Define “truth,” “consciousness,” or the number “two” however you like, knowing with perfect certainty that you cannot possibly be wrong (or right) even somewhat. They are simply definitions.

      So now then… do your definitions happen to be useful? That’s the perspective which past thinkers seem not to have appreciated, and which I’d like to provide. I’ll need this in order to demonstrate a great deal more.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric, I generally agree. Language is utterly relativist. But I have some caveats.

        If the word has a common definition and we’re not using it, we need to be very clear about it. I find far too much philosophical and humanist writing doesn’t do that, often leading to text that can be interpreted in multiple ways, a practice I find maddening. It often leaves the author weasel room if someone calls them them out on their assertions. I think it’s damning to the fields that tolerate this kind of thing, and a strength of most sciences that it isn’t.

        Even when we are clear about our special definition, we should ask if it improves our clarity to use a common word in an uncommon way. If the reader is constantly having to remember to switch out the common meaning for our special one, it will make the text harder to parse, and again, be prone to misinterpretation.

        Of course, sometimes the redefinition is the point, an argument about what the term actually means, or should mean. But in that case, the common meaning should remain remain salient in the reader’s mind, and actually be a strength of the new proposed definition.

        All of which is to say, that definitions can be used to clarify, but they can also be used to engage in weaselly language or outright legerdemain.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Prism says:

    There are two primary ways to study consciousness – objectively with science and observation, and subjectively by exploring the inner realms though meditation, altered states and contemplation. I believe a study from both angles will lead to a more complete theory.

    There is a new(ish) theory from quantum physics that explains mystical insights as well. It has actually been around since the beginning of quantum physics, but the top scientists, like Einstein, didn’t want it to be true back then. One of the properties of the electromagnetic field we call ‘the universe’ may be consciousness. It may be a force like gravity.

    When you spend enough time in meditation, letting go of false ideas of who you are and attachments to worldly things, one eventually realizes they are the universe experiencing itself. It’s a strange and powerful realization.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Prism,
      I think you’re right that there has to be a confluence between the objective and subjective sides of consciousness. Neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, it’s all different sides of the same coin. And the best neuroscientists definitely recognize that. I don’t read too many who insist they have the whole picture.

      While I find quantum physics fascinating (to the limited extent I understand any of it), I can’t say I’m enthusiastic for quantum theories of consciousness. Without evidence (which of course, could surface tomorrow), it seems like an unnecessary complication.

      I’m not into meditation, although a few of the others here are. The idea that we are the universe becoming self aware is one I’ve heard from many scientists. I’d just note that the speed of light limitation somewhat limits or complicates that analogy.


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