Massimo Pigliucci has a good article on consciousness at Aeon. In it, he takes aim both at illusionists as well as those who claim consciousness is outside the purview of science. Although I’d say he’s more worked up about the illusionists.
However, rather than taking the typical path of strawmanning the claim, he deals with the actual argument, acknowledging what the illusionists are actually saying, that it isn’t consciousness overall they see as an illusion, but phenomenal consciousness in particular.
First, in discussing the views of Keith Frankish (probably the chief champion of illusionism today):
He begins by making a distinction between phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness. Phenomenal consciousness is what produces the subjective quality of experience, what philosophers call ‘qualia’
…By contrast, access consciousness makes it possible for us to perceive things in the first place. As Frankish puts it, access consciousness is what ‘makes sensory information accessible to the rest of the mind, and thus to “you” – the person constituted by these embodied mental systems’
He then presents a fork similar (although not identical) to the one I presented the other day.
Both camps agree that there is more to consciousness than the access aspect and, moreover, that phenomenal consciousness seems to have nonphysical properties (the ‘what is it like’ thing). From there, one can go in two very different directions: the scientific horn of the dilemma, attempting to explain how science might provide us with a satisfactory account of phenomenal consciousness, as Frankish does; or the antiscientific horn, claiming that phenomenal consciousness is squarely outside the domain of competence of science,
Actually I’m not sure I agree with the first part of the first sentence, that phenomenal consciousness is necessarily something separate and apart from access consciousness. To me, phenomenal consciousness is access consciousness, just from the inside, that is, phenomenal consciousness is what it’s like to have access consciousness.
But anyway, Massimo largely agrees with the illusionists in terms of the underlying reality. But he disagrees with calling phenomenal consciousness an illusion. He describes the user interface metaphor often used by illusionists, but notes that actual user interfaces in computer systems are not illusions, but crucial causal mechanisms. This pretty much matches my own view.
I do think illusionism is saying something important, but it would be stronger if it found another way to express it. Michael Graziano, who has at times embraced the illusionist label, but backed away from it in his more recent book, notes that when people see “illusion”, they equate it with “mirage”. For the most hard core illusionists, this is accurate, albeit only for phenomenal consciousness, although others use “illusion” to mean “not what it appears to be.” It seems like the word “illusion” shuts down consideration.
It’s why my own preferred language is to say that phenomenal consciousness exists, but only subjectively, as the internal perspective of access consciousness. It’s the phenomena to access consciousness’ noumena.
I do have a couple of quibbles with the article. First is this snippet:
but I think of consciousness as a weakly emergent phenomenon, not dissimilar from, say, the wetness of water (though a lot more complicated).
I’m glad Massimo stipulated weak emergence here. And I agree that the right way to think about phenomenal consciousness is existing at a certain level of organization. (And again, from a certain perspective.)
But I get nervous when people talk about consciousness and emergence. The issue is that, of course consciousness is emergent, but that in and of itself doesn’t really explain anything. We know temperature is emergent from particle kinetics, but we more than know that it emerges, we understand how it emerges. I don’t think we should be satisfied with anything less for consciousness.
The involved neurons also need to be made of (and produce) the right stuff: it is not just how they are arranged in the brain that does the trick, it also takes certain specific physical and chemical properties that carbon-based cells have, silicon-based alternatives might or might not have (it’s an open empirical question), and cardboard, say, definitely doesn’t have.
Massimo has a history of taking biological naturalism type positions, so I’m happy that he at least acknowledges the possibility of machine consciousness here. And I suspect his real target are the panpsychists. But I’m a functionalist and see functionality (or the lack of it) as sufficient to rule out those types of claims. When people talk about particular substrates, I wish they’d discuss what specific functionality is only enabled by those substrates, and why.
But again, those are quibbles.
It follows that an explanation of phenomenal consciousness will come (if it will come – there is no assurance that, just because we want to know something, we will eventually figure out a way of actually knowing it) from neuroscience and evolutionary biology, once our understanding of the human brain will be comparable with our understanding of the inner workings of our own computers. We will then see clearly the connection between the underlying mechanisms and the user-friendly, causally efficacious representations (not illusions!) that allow us to efficiently work with computers and to survive and reproduce in our world as biological organisms.
Despite a caveat I’m not wild about, amen to the main point!