Inflate and explode, or deflate and preserve?

Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has an interesting post up criticizing the arguments of illusionists, those who have concluded that phenomenal consciousness is an illusion.

Here’s a way to deny the existence of things of Type X. Assume that things of Type X must have Property A, and then argue that nothing has Property A.

If that assumption is wrong — if things of Type X needn’t necessarily have Property A — then you’ve given what I’ll pejoratively call an inflate-and-explode argument. This is what I think is going on in eliminativism and “illusionism” about (phenomenal) consciousness. The eliminativist or illusionist wrongly treats one or another dubious property as essential to “consciousness” (or “qualia” or “what-it’s-like-ness” or…), argues perhaps rightly that nothing in fact has that dubious property, and then falsely concludes that consciousness does not exist or is an illusion.

Schwitzgebel is talking about philosophers like Keith Frankish, Patricia Churchland, and Daniel Dennett.  I did a post a while back discussing Frankish’s illusionism and the debate he had arranged in the Journal of Consciousness Studies about that outlook.

As I noted back then, I largely agree with the illusionists that the idea of a form of consciousness separate and apart from the information processing in the brain is a mistaken one, but I remain uncomfortable saying something like, “Phenomenal consciousness doesn’t exist.”   I have some sympathy with the argument that if it is an illusion, then the illusion is the experience.  I much prefer pointing out that introspection is unreliable, particularly in trying to understand consciousness.

But as some of you know from conversation on the previous post, I have to admit that I’m occasionally tempted to just declare that the whole consciousness concept is an unproductive one, and that we should just move on without it.  But I also have to admit that, when I’m thinking that way, I’m holding what Schwitzgebel calls “the inflated” version of consciousness in my mind.  When I think about the more modest concept, I continue to see it as useful.

But this leads to a question.  Arguably when having these discussions, we should use words in the manner that matches the common understandings of them.  If we don’t do that, clarity demands that we frequently remind our conversation partners which version of the concept we’re referring to.  The question is, which version of consciousness matches most people’s intuitive sense of what the word means?  The one that refers to the suite of capabilities such as responsiveness, perception, emotion, memory, attention, and introspection?  Or the version with dubious properties such as infallible access to our thoughts, or being irreducible to physical processes?

I think consciousness is one of those terms where most people’s intuitions about it are inconsistent.  In most day to day pragmatic usage, the uninflated version dominates.  And these are the versions described in dictionary definitions.  But actually start a conversation specifically about consciousness, and the second version tends to creep in.

(I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon with the concept of “free will.”  In everyday language, it’s often taken as a synonym for “volition”, but talk specifically about the concept itself and the theological or libertarian version of free will tends to arise.)

So, are Frankish and company really “inflating” the concept of phenomenal consciousness when they call it an illusion?  It depends on your perspective.

But thinking about the practice Schwitzgebel is criticizing, I think we also have to be cognizant of another one that can happen in the opposite direction: deflate and preserve.  In other words, people sometimes deflate a concept until it is more defensible and easier to retain.

Atheists often accuse religious naturalists of doing this with the concept of God, accusing them of deflating it to something banal such as “the ground of being” or a synonym for the laws of nature.  And hard determinists often accuse compatibilists of doing it with “free will.”  I’ve often accused naturalistic panspychists of using an excessively deflated concept of consciousness.  And I could see illusionists accusing Schwitzgebel of doing it with phenomenal consciousness.

Which is to say, whether a concept is being inflated or deflated is a matter of perspective and definition.  And definitions are utterly relativist, which makes arguing about them unproductive.  Our only anchor seems to be common intuitions, but those are often inconsistent, often even in the same person.

I come back to the requirements for clarity.  For example, in the previous post, I didn’t say consciousness as a whole doesn’t exist, but was clear that I was talking about a specific version of it.  For me, that still seems like the best approach, but I recognize it will always be a judgment call.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

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18 Responses to Inflate and explode, or deflate and preserve?

  1. paultorek says:

    You’re missing something.

    To wit, when both philosophers and ordinary folk inflate, they do so for reasons, and often spectacularly bad reasons. Some think, for example, that physical is the “opposite” of mental, in so far as we talk about (e.g.) physical versus mental ailments. But this just uses the wrong concept of “physical” for the philosophical context: what is wanted is more a what-the-laws-of-physics-are-about concept, which is different. Failing to notice that it is different, folks can make a wrong assumption about what physical events and processes must be like – even if we give them the right (i.e. relevant) definition of “physical” at the start.

    Since the inflation comes from a misunderstanding of physical processes, it would be wrong to use the inflated definition of “mental” whereby the mental is inherently nonphysical. It could be wrong even if 100% of the folk-on-the-street endorse the “mental implies nonphysical” definition.

    Now, most dualists have reasons that aren’t that bad as the one I just noted. But what matters is not how bad the reason is. What matters is whether the special property A (in our story, nonphysicality) has been asserted based on a misunderstanding of not-A (here, physicality). And I think you’ll find that the answer is almost always yes. That definitely applies to both consciousness and free will.


    • Hey Paul,
      Certainly if someone holds an inflated version of a concept, just by labeling it “inflated”, we’re inherently saying that version is incorrect, regardless of whatever problematic reasons they have for holding it. Note that the same is true for deflated versions, although the deflated versions don’t necessarily have the same ontological problems that the inflated ones would have since they are a subset of what we view as the correct version.

      On your points about “physical”, it occurs to me that it could be subject to the same inflation or deflation as the other concepts. For example, I’ve had discussions with people who didn’t think energy or gravitation was physical. Arguably they’re using a deflated view of the physical, at least in terms of how physicists see it. And I’ve had people be skeptical when I pointed out that information is physical; from their perspective, I’m using an inflated version of physical. (A perspective I obviously disagree with.)

      So, no argument that people hold inflated concepts due to defective understandings of that concept. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. It’s the definitions that are relativist, not the reality the words are supposed to refer to.

      Liked by 1 person

      • paultorek says:

        The “inflated” label should be based on a diagnosis of erroneous thinking. (The “deflated” label would have to be based on different evidence.) Here’s a helpful idea: in place of inflated/deflated we can use the relatively neutral thicker/thinner for definitions that include more or fewer requirements, respectively. Note that you can replace all occurrences of “inflated definition” in my argument with “thicker definition”, and nothing important changes. Wish I thought of that earlier.

        By this criterion you just mislabeled the gravitation and information examples. The people who say “physical” excludes gravitation have a more demanding implicit definition of “physical”, so they have the thicker definition. Similarly for information.

        I didn’t mean to imply that the ability to track down erroneous thinking, thereby showing how a definition truly does deserve the label “inflated”, contradicts any of your main points. But, it’s an important tool. I think your original post throws up its hands too early. It won’t always be a judgment call.

        For what it’s worth, I think the “divide” between semantic versus substantive disputes is a misrepresentation of a continuum. Moreover, it’s a continuum whose “nearly purely semantic” end is extremely sparsely populated.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve Ruis says:

    Maybe that there is no such thing as a philosophical argument that proves anything. Methinks we need to just get back to the lab.

    Philosophy has been grinding on this “problem” for many, many centuries, science only maybe one (seriously). If that kind of head start doesn’t work, then maybe the wrong tool is being used, no?


    • I definitely think the answers will require science. But a lot of neuroscientists read philosophy and their research hypotheses are often driven by philosophical questions. Of course, a lot of the philosophy of mind are rationalizations for dualism, ignoring what science has been telling us for the last century and a half. I agree that portion isn’t helpful.

      So I think it’s a mistake to dismiss philosophy out of hand, but I agree it should be evaluated with a skeptical eye.


  3. Callan says:

    To me the argument just seemed unfair – person A is saying qualia are ineffable, then person B says they don’t exist because only matter exists, then person C is acting like person B is saying both that qualia are ineffable AND that that means they don’t exist. Person C is just being unfair in their argument, miss attributing claims to B that B did not make.


    • If you read Schwitzgebel’s post, he does put some responsibility on A, noting that in their enthusiasm, the statement that qualia are ineffable (which is uncontroversial) is often paired with assertions about what that means, typically involving some implied variation of dualism.

      B then reacts to the whole package and declares that qualia don’t exist. Of course, Schwitzgebel’s main point is that B is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

      Ironically, A and B agree on a definition of qualia that is non-physical, they just disagree on whether it is reality. C disagrees with both of them on the definition of qualia, but ends up agreeing with A that they exist, even though they’re not talking about the same thing.

      Which just bring me back to my observation that productive discussion in this area requires clarity.


      • Callan says:

        No, the unfair bit is treating it as if A and B somehow agree on a definition of qualia, rather than B simply doing as the romans do (so to speak) and working from A’s point of view. If someone says dragons exist because there’s kryptonite in the world, someone else saying there’s no kryptonite in the world doesn’t mean they believe or agree in the association between dragon existance and kryptonite.

        Let’s look at the first example: “Paul Feyerabend (1965) denies that mental processes of any sort exist. He does so on the grounds that “mental processes”, understood in the ordinary sense, are necessarily nonmaterial, and only material things exist.”

        Does Feyerabend agree with person ‘A’ about the definition or is he just referring to the person’s belief/claim and dismissing it from it’s own point of view, even if Feyerabend doesn’t share that point of view?

        The blow up actually appears to be taking someone engaging others ideas and treating it as if they also claim those ideas in doing so.


  4. James Cross says:

    I’m starting to find tedious much of the philosophical discussion of consciousness but I have some random thoughts, not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing.

    The concept of consciousness as an undeniable stream of experience is simple and somewhat refreshing. So I like that.

    Nevertheless, it seems to me that consciousness could exist and be illusory at the same time, much like a mirage exists as an image we see but still represent an object which does not actually exist.

    The equation (or perhaps “correlation” is a better word) of consciousness with information processing I don’t find useful since it doesn’t distinguish it from information processing that doesn’t produce consciousness. Information processing probably is involved in consciousness but doesn’t explain it.

    The distinctions between physical/mental, material/non-material are distinctions made by consciousness and may be like mirages.

    Time and memory may be essential components of consciousness and I don’t find this to be much discussed. Our stream of experience is shapedin the present by memory which draws on the experience of past.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks James.

      On information processing, my actual view is that consciousness is an application of information processing, or more accurately, a collection of applications in a hierarchy:
      1. reflexes, automatic reactions to stimuli
      2. perception, building predictive models of the environment, increasing the scope in space of what the reflexes are reacting to.
      3. attention, prioritizing what the reflexes react to
      4. imagination, sensory and action simulations as a guide to action, increasing the scope in time of what the reflexes are reacting to, enabling what we commonly think of as volition.
      5. introspection, a feedback mechanism that enables symbolic thought and vastly increases the range of 4.

      So consciousness could be thought of as a mechanism to increase the scope in time and space of what the organism can react to.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. James Cross says:

    A reflex by definition doesn’t involve conscious thought.

    I’m not sure how tagging any of these neurological activities as information processing provides any insight into consciousness. Information processing happens on my phone but my phone isn’t conscious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • On reflexes, I agree, but a panpsychist who defines consciousness as anything that interacts with its environment, probably wouldn’t. And that layer is an important one. By layer 4, it manifests as affects, emotional feelings.

      My view is that human consciousness requires the entire hierarchy. Most vertebrates seem to have 1-4 to varying degrees, but it’s not clear that non-primates have 5. Basically I see those layers are accounting for the major components of what we commonly call “consciousness.”


    • Callan says:

      Conciousness just needs to have no sense of all the reflexes it’s made up of and then it’s easily enough grasped as reflexes. When does a thought come to you? Perhaps there’s a structure of reflexes just raising the thought or memory, completely unsensed. The memory is recalled but the storage of the memory is unknown, even though you can see people with brain damage lose memories.

      Suppose you’re all just reflexes and synaptic responses, but without a log of all these happening there just isn’t any information to tell you what consciousness is?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent post Mike. I consider it quite lame to inflate a definition so that physical examples of it quite obviously don’t exist, or to deflate a definition so that they do. Of course these people erroneously believe that they’re helping us understand what consciousness “truly is”, which you know I consider to be a false premise anyway. Philosophy oversees the topics which I consider science to at least implicitly rest upon (metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology), so without a respectable community with various agreed upon principles in these regards (such as my EP1), science thus suffers.

    Panpsychist deflation seems pretty clear to me, since causality itself can then be defined as what’s conscious. Thus naturalism would mandate that everything which is real, is conscious as well. How insightful!

    Could you give me some specifics regarding the exploder side? I just listened to my 22,000 word notes for Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, but couldn’t find where he put something in that I wouldn’t. In fact he seemed to take something vital out — no qualia! Perhaps this is why the book is derisively referred to as “Consciousness Explained Away”? Is it because he’s removed the most instrumental element? Regardless my 2015 notes exhaustively detail the book as crap. That it shot him to superstardom really makes a statement about the state of things in this regard. He’s one hell of a clever and charismatic old trickster!

    I’m far less familiar with Frankish and Churchland however, so I’d love your thoughts on how they’ve “exploded” consciousness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Eric.

      “Could you give me some specifics regarding the exploder side?”
      If you haven’t yet, you might want to read Schwitzgebel’s piece directly since this is his concept. In general though, I see the inflated version as the one that assumes phenomenal experience isn’t the information processing, that the distinction between “access consciousness” and “phenomenal consciousness” is something more than perspective, that there is something ontological about it. Personally I think that ontology is hopelessly tangled up with substance dualism. The fact that so many people who hold that ontology insist that they’re not dualists means that someone is confused. (Naturally I think it’s them 🙂 )

      I do think Dennett, when he dismisses qualia, is dismissing an inflated version. But to be fair to him, as Schwitzgebel admits, a lot of people see the inflated version as inseparable from the more modest version that sees a quale as a unit of subjective experience without any ontological assumptions.

      I haven’t read Churchland at length, just an article or two here and there, and watched her in some talks and conferences, so I can’t really comment on her arguments. I have read Frankish enough to know that he is an unapologetic illusionist. I think he sees that position as justified because most people hold the inflated view of phenomenal consciousness.

      As I noted in the post, I agree with the illusionists ontologically, but I disagree with the way to communicate it. Although as I’ve noted before, I’m sometimes tempted to join them and dismiss the whole concept of consciousness as hopelessly entangled with Cartesian dualism and a mistaken concept. But that attitude tends to end conversations, so it seems more productive to talk about the mechanisms which make up this thing we refer to as “consciousness.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • Right Mike. I’d forgotten that this illusion business is not really about consciousness not existing, but rather that perceptions of reality (phenomenal color, sound, taste, and so on) don’t quite exist as we perceive them to. I don’t see the point of illustrating standard physics to people who believe that “red” ultimately exists in nature! I’d hope that these distinguished academics would find better things to do than state what educated people have understood for quite a while. And otherwise I’d hope for them to not go about this project in such an overstated way. Apparently it adds to their popularity, which is troubling.

      Of course you know that I love discussing my own entirely subjective model of consciousness (or all “illusion”, if we must call it that). Here there’s a non-conscious computer (or brain) that outputs +/- experienced value from which to drive the function of the conscious form of computer by which existence is experienced. I theorize that the “illusion” of consciousness is created because creatures in more open environments with no a teleological element, are unable to gain sufficient programming to deal with novel circumstances. Theoretically just like our troubled non-conscious robots, they can’t otherwise gain enough autonomy. So conscious life took over the more open environments.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “I don’t see the point of illustrating standard physics to people who believe that “red” ultimately exists in nature! ”

        That’s a good way of putting it! Colors don’t exist, except in nervous systems, where they are an abstraction, a convention used to communicate the reception of certain wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation reflected off of surfaces, a convention that is adaptive because it aids in the construction of predictive models of the environment.

        “I theorize that the “illusion” of consciousness is created because creatures in more open environments with no a teleological element, are unable to gain sufficient programming to deal with novel circumstances.”

        Would it be fair to say then, that your theory of consciousness considers there to be degrees of it? For example, a fruit fly has very limited ability to learn new things. The vast majority of its behavior is instinctual. A mouse has a greater share of learned behavior, as does a bear or dog. When we get to primates, the lion share of the behavior is learned, built off of a foundation of instincts. So would it be accurate to ascribe more consciousness to a primate than a bear, more to a bear than a mouse, and more to a mouse than fly?

        Of course I realize “learned behavior” can be a tricky phrase. A worm’s reflexive responses can end up being conditioned, which can be considered a form of learning. But the worm shows no signs of building mental concepts, predictive models, so its behavior remains relatively reflexive in nature. So maybe this isn’t quite the correlation I’m thinking it is?

        Liked by 1 person

    • I should qualify one thing there Mike. I consider it extremely important for standard science to be taught to people who aren’t familiar with it, such as children. It’s those who oppose some of its highly accepted ideas with little more than faith based alternatives that I’d rather we not worry so much about. And are these the people that Dennett and the rest nevertheless use their “illusionism” to counter? No, I suspect that with this funky little stance they’re simply playing “the fame game”.

      Surely most everyone believes that there are more and less advanced forms of life in a conscious sense, as in primate to bear to mouse to fruit fly to worm (pending a given consciousness definition regulating what has this capacity at all). Yes “learning” isn’t the key from my own such definition, but rather the existence of something which is motivated to function through a punishment/ reward dynamic. Without this I wouldn’t say that any of our computers are conscious, for example, though some may be said to have programming which helps them non-consciously adapt to various presented circumstances, or thus “learn”. But how might they do so if their programming isn’t set up to deal with a given circumstance? Not only do our pathetic machines seem to fail here, but I suspect that under more open environments evolution’s non-conscious forms of life do as well. Thus the theorized need for teleological function.

      As I define consciousness I actually suspect that the absolute number of conscious calculations done in my head are less than one thousandth of one percent of its non-conscious calculations. From my model consciousness exists as an output of the necessarily far larger non-conscious computer. So if the human has 86 billion neurons, and the fruit fly also has a punishment/ reward element but only 250,000 neurons, perhaps it’s function is proportionally “more conscious” than the human?


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