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?