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?