Is the Hard Problem an illusion?

An oddly shaped iceberg

A scene from last year’s consciousness cruise off Greenland. But were the qualia it seemed to produce illusory?

Note: This is a revised version of a letter I sent to The Guardian, responding to a letter by Philip Goff, which itself commented on an article on consciousness by Oliver Burkeman. The letter was deemed too long for publication in the paper, so I am posting it here instead. It is written for a general audience.

As a member of the Daniel Dennett camp on the Greenland consciousness cruise referred to in Oliver Burkeman’s article, I should like to respond to Philip Goff’s letter of 28 January 2015. Goff advocates a radical solution to the Hard Problem of explaining how consciousness fits into the natural world. Consciousness, he argues, is not a physical process, but an intrinsic feature of all physical reality. Consciousness is not fundamentally material; rather, matter is fundamentally conscious. A consequence of this view is that everything is conscious to some degree: trees, stones, atoms, quarks — all have a little bit of consciousness. This panpsychist position offers a neat solution to the problem, and Goff argues for it with intelligence and elegance, but I find it hard to take it seriously.

I do agree with Goff on one important point: Consciousness, as we ordinarily conceive of it, cannot be explained by the physical sciences. The Hard Problem, as posed by David Chalmers, can’t be solved by cognitive science. Goff draws the moral that consciousness is not physical in the ordinary sense. I draw the moral that we are conceiving of consciousness wrongly. We are mistaken about what consciousness is.

Our conception of consciousness is derived from introspection — from mentally ‘looking inwards’ at our experiences. When we do this, our experiences seem to have a private ‘phenomenal quality’ to them (think of the sensation of seeing a vibrant green leaf, or smelling coffee grounds, or running one’s fingers over a silk scarf). These phenomenal qualities (or ‘qualia’) seem almost magical and utterly different from the mundane physical properties of our brains.

But maybe that’s an illusion. Maybe when we introspect, what we are aware of are certain patterns of brain activity that seem magical and nonphysical but aren’t really. Moreover, as another cruise participant, Nicholas Humphrey, argued, maybe these brain processes were shaped by evolution precisely to seem magical to introspection. In his 2011 book Soul Dust Humphrey argued that evolution adapted pre-existing neural systems to create an inner ‘magic show’ which carries immense adaptive benefits — enriching our lives and our experience of the world, enhancing our sense of self, and deepening our engagement with each other. In short, maybe evolution has hardwired us to think that we have a magical inner life, and the problem of consciousness is a benign trick that nature has played on us.

Most people, I find, think this suggestion is just as crazy as panpsychism. If there’s one thing we are absolutely certain of (the argument goes) it’s our experience. We may doubt that there is a green patch in front of us, but we can’t doubt that we are having an experience with a green phenomenal quality. This takes us back to the origins of the Hard Problem in Descartes’ sceptical thought experiment mentioned in Oliver Burkeman’s article. There’s something right about this. If we suspect that our senses are misleading us about the external world, then we retreat to more cautious and secure claims about how things seem to us. But (I would argue) such claims should not be construed as infallible reports of the nature of our experiences. Being cautious about the external world doesn’t make us infallible about the interior one. We may be sure that we’re introspecting something, but can we rule out the possibility that we’re mistaken about its nature, just as we may be about the nature of external things? After all, to the spectator a good illusion of something is indistinguishable from the thing itself.

Of course, it’s not so simple to solve the problem of consciousness. For one thing, we need to explain what it means to say that experiences seem to have phenomenal qualities. (It better not mean that they generate further experiences which really do have phenomenal qualities. Otherwise we’d merely have moved the Hard Problem back a step.) But thinking of consciousness as involving an illusion changes the questions we have to answer, and does so, I believe, in a productive way.

On the cruise I proposed the name ‘illusionism’ for the sort of position I have been describing, and the term ‘the Illusion Problem’ for the problem of explaining how the consciousness illusion is created. (I wasn’t claiming to have originated the position or the problem; Daniel Dennett has advocated illusionism for decades, and Nicholas Humphrey has done pioneering work on the Illusion Problem.) For me, the attraction of illusionism is that it allows us to give full weight to the intuitions that motivate views like Goff’s — consciousness really does seem weird — without requiring us to endorse a weird metaphysics. Maybe it’s time to stop banging our heads against an illusory Hard Problem and start trying to solve the hard-ish but solvable Illusion Problem?

The talks from the consciousness cruise, including Jesse Prinz’s introduction to my paper on illusionism, my reply, and the following discussion, were videoed by the Moscow Center for Consciousness Studies and can be viewed on the centre’s Youtube channel. Here is the full playlist.

8 comments to Is the Hard Problem an illusion?

  • Calculation and reflex/conditioned response are physical processes that generate conflicting imperatives. In any given instance one of them wins out. Consciousness as we “experience” it, is the outgrowth of that struggle, an epiphenomenal unity, the illusion of a decision-maker.

    If I’m running from a lion who’s pawed a gash in my leg, my body is communicating information by means of the qualia of “pain,” while a robot programmed for its own preservation will receive feedback in concrete quantitative terms. Biomechanical qualia are quanta: vast amounts of data known to us only in totality as sense.

    Biological machines are capable of reason but are programmed also by conditioning, and reason and reflex can produce contradictory imperatives. If there’s a “choice” to be made, which mechanism is it that “makes” the choice?

    Consciousness is not complex calculation it’s indecision. Create an indecisive computer, a neurotic computer, torn (having been given the imperative to survive) between the heuristics of conditioned response and calculation, and you’ll have a conscious non-biological machine.

    It’s not logically or empirically a hard problem.

    • I may not have been clear: “a conscious non-biological machine” would have had the same illusory “senses” that biological machines have, the same capacity for illusory “indecision”. The question for physicalism is why consciousness should exist at all, whether it’s a spandrel, or serves some sort of secondary function.

      The “choices” are physicalism as described above, or spiritualism. Dualism is transubstantiation.

  • Philip Hughes

    The Hard problem exists in trying to reduce the subjective to the objective. Two fundamental complementaries. We start out with a physicalist ontology (3r person – objective absolutism) and try to fit consciousness into that presumed picture, and that gives The Hard Problem its definitions.

    Subjectivity can never be found in the objective (which leaves some to conclude it must not exist and thus, be an illusion), rather it is the objective that is defined by the subjective – 3rd person perspective can only exist within 1st person perspective. Objective reality is consensus agreement of perception amongst an apparent multiplicity of subjects.

    Consciousness is not ‘what it is like to be something,’ it is the the means by which ‘what it is like to be something’ is known. It is the means by which all and anything is known; it is the radical subject.

    “…maybe evolution has hardwired us to think that we have a magical inner life, and the problem of consciousness is a benign trick that nature has played on us.” By what means is the proposed consciousness/illusion of thinking we have a magical inner life known?

    “…to the spectator a good illusion of something is indistinguishable from the thing itself.” If consciousness is an illusion and it’s nature is mistaken then to what subjectivity does this trick appear?

    We can doubt all that we perceive and apprehend, but we cannot doubt that to which all that is perceived(or misperceived) appears to. Illusions can only ever be objective( by this definition even subtle mental phenomena i.e thoughts are objects). Whether real or illusory, that by which such concepts and introspections are known can never be negated. Illusionism will not solve anything and will always be philosophical handwaving.

    The idea that consciousness somehow emerges from unconscious information processing is “magical thinking” to quote Sam Harris. Time to give the likes of Goff some serious consideration and perhaps start to think just what weird metaphysics physicalism is to endorse.

    If you think I’m trouble, then I encourage you to read this man:

    BTW Kastrup likes a good debate, so if any feel so inclined, he can be reached via his site and twitter.

    Yes, the Hard problem is an illusion (unless you’re a physicalist – and then it’s the impossible problem), but consciousness cannot be. As for whether an ontologically objective reality is illusory, well…

    P.S Can you doubt the means by which you know your thoughts of objections and counterargument to this comment? If you can, to what do such doubts appear?

    • Philip Hughes

      In addition: While I don’t always agree with Sam Harris on certain issues, his rebuttal of illusionism is excellently formulated and would be appropriate amongst these comments.

      “It is surely a sign of our intellectual progress that a discussion of consciousness no longer has to begin with a debate about its existence. To say that consciousness may only seem to exist is to admit its existence in full—for if things seem any way at all, that is consciousness. Even if I happen to be a brain in a vat at this moment—all my memories are false; all my perceptions are of a world that does not exist—the fact that I am having an experience is indisputable (to me, at least). This is all that is required for me (or any other conscious being) to fully establish the reality of consciousness. Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.”

      “…I agree, of course, that we may be profoundly mistaken about consciousness—about how it arises, about its connection to matter, about precisely what we are conscious of and when, etc. But this is not the same as saying that consciousness itself may be entirely illusory. The state of being utterly confused about the nature of consciousness is itself a demonstration of consciousness.”

  • I accept illusionism as an option in logical space (as I argue here:, but I don’t find it about as plausible as solipsism.

    The solipsist is correct that I have no infallible grounds for trusting my senses, but in the absence of strong reason to doubt them, it’s reasonable to trust them. Similarly, even if you are right that we have no infallible grounds for trusting introspection, in the absence of strong reason to doubt it, it’s reasonable to trust it.

    Of course empirical psychology has revealed to us lots of fascinating ways in which introspection goes astray. But there are also lots of fascinating ways in which our senses lead us astray. The lesson to draw from this is that we need to be careful, and apply reason when grounding beliefs on sense experience or introspection. It gives us no grounds for rejecting these faculties altogether as legitimate sources of data about reality. I think scientists of the future will be mystified by the skepticism concerning introspection which dominated in the 20th century.

    Perhaps you think you have such a reason:

    “These phenomenal qualities (or ‘qualia’) seem almost magical and utterly different from the mundane physical properties of our brains.”

    But the Russell/Eddington I referred to in my letter has a perfectly adequate way of reconciling what we know about brain from sense experience with what we know about brains from introspection: the former reveals causal structure, the latter reveals intrinsic nature.

    You also find panpsychism ‘hard to take seriously’. Many find time dilation, quantum indeterminacy and the thesis that our ancestors are apes ‘hard to take seriously’. But I don’t think we should take these kind of ‘gut feelings’ terribly seriously.

  • One more for fun, and beggaring all the questions in my previous comments:

    When I was young I chased a girl. I told her I was in love with her. She laughed. “No, you’re not”.
    She was right; I was wrong. I realized much later of course that her understanding of her exterior world had been better than my understanding of my interior one. It’s an old story; it’s stock theater, hidden from philosophers if no one else in plain sight.

    Problems illustrated in philosophers’ hypotheticals always are better described by storytellers. Philosophers prefer illustration to art because they prefer propositions to questions and speculation to observation. Assume a can opener, assume a stable subject, all without reason.

  • Oliver Leech

    (A post from the blog:
    by Oliver Leech )
    The most recent post on this blog (‘Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the problem of consciousness?’, January 28th 2015) was a discussion about the hard problem of consciousness. I mentioned there that among the critics of the view that consciousness is a hard problem was the philosopher, Daniel Dennett. Dennett claims that all attempts to explain the mystery of consciousness are misguided. There is no mystery, according to him, and there is no hard problem because consciousness is an illusion. That is a very brief summary of what, I am sure is a much more complex and no doubt very subtle view. I hope that it does not do too much of an injustice to Dennett. But the relevant point is that the position of many philosophers like Dennett who take a strongly physicalist approach to the philosophy of mind is encapsulated in the idea that consciousness is an illusion.
    Could consciousness be an illusion? I think not for the following reason. Consider a stock example of an illusion, a stick appearing to be bent when placed in water. When I experience such an illusion, I have a perception which is an incorrect representation of what exists in reality. I see the stick as bent when in fact it is straight. In short, to experience an illusion is to perceive an appearance which is at odds with reality.
    What exactly is this distinction between appearance and reality? Well, it is surely not a feature of the physical universe as such. The physical universe is a collection of objects of various sizes at rest or in motion at different stages in their span of existence, planets to plankton, galaxies to grains of sand. Within this domain there is no place for a distinction between false and true, between appearance and reality. That distinction is a concept and can only exist within consciousness. The existence of consciousness is a prerequisite for the distinction. In short, if we posit an illusion, we presuppose consciousness.
    The philosopher E J Lowe puts it more elegantly (in his criticism of eliminative materialism a position which depends heavily on the premise that a scientific description encompasses all that can be said about reality):
    ‘It would seem that the very notion of truth is inextricably bound up with the notions of belief and the other ‘propositional attitudes’. The primary bearers of truth, it may be urged, are not abstract sentences or theories but beliefs. Sentences are linguistic items and as such are only true or false inasmuch as they are capable of expressing beliefs which are true or false: for unless they are interpretable by thinking subjects, sentences are merely lifeless strings of meaningless marks or sounds [my underlining]. If that is so, then to abandon the category of belief is implicitly to abandon also the very notions of truth and falsehood and therewith, it seems, the very notion of rational argument which lies at the heart of the scientific approach to understanding the world.’[i]
    To sum up: if there is only matter with consciousness dismissed as an illusion, then when a materialist writes that consciousness is an illusion, all that is happening is that black marks are being made on a piece of paper, a white objects has been stained in patterned shapes that change its physical structure. There is nothing over and above this completely comprehensive description. But there is no true or false here. True and false, appearance and reality belong in a different domain.
    [i] An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind by E.J. Lowe (CUP 2000)

  • Keith,

    I think you’re right that there’s no hard problem and that we should endeavor instead to solve the the semi-hard (but tractable) Illusion problem. Here’s how I think one should approach the illusion problem.

    I’d begin with the Fregean notion of Mode of Presentation (“MOP”). The same object/thing can be presented to you under different MOP. Under some MOPs, you may recognize the object, under other MOPs you may not. You even may apprehend the same object under two different MOPs and fail to realize that the same object is presented in two different ways. You may think that some object, O, is two separate objects, O1 and O2. Call this phenomenon “recognition failure.”

    I think the illusion of consciousness is caused by recognition failure.

    Suppose you looked at a red object that caused a “reddish” sensation in you. On introspection, you recognize that you are having a reddish sensation, identifying the experience correctly as reddish. Here, reddishness is presented to you under MOP1. Now suppose that a neuroscientist (of the future) were able to write a true and complete book on human color recognitional capacities, characterizing the property of reddishness in purely functionalist/representationalist/neural terms. The chapter on reddishness would presented reddishness under a second mode of presentation, MOP2. MOP1 and MOP2 would both present reddishness, but in different ways, such that you would be hard pressed to see that they were in fact presenting the same phenomenon. You would suffer recognition failure.

    MOP1 and MOP2 are very different, and this explains why you are strongly disposed to resist any suggestion that a functionalist/representationalist/neural theory could be correct. MOP2 is linguistic mode of presentation — using words and symbols. MOP1 uses no words. It is a brute-causal MOP, one realized by some physical process in the brain to which the subject has no introspective access. These MOPs could not be further apart in the way they present the same phenomenon.

    We evolved to recognize reddishness under MOP1, not MOP2. Hence, it is very difficult for us to accept that the same thing is presented. It takes a huge amount of cognitive resources, mental energy and imaginative powers to see that reddishness could be presented in two so fundamentally different ways.

    I would oppose the Humphrey’s idea that the illusion has some evolutionary advantage for which it was selected. On the contrary, the illusion is due to the fact that nature would have to provide a great deal of cognitive resources to enable us to be skilled at seeing that reddishness could be presented under such radically different MOPs. There would be no evolutionary advantage in being able to see this — how would it help us to find food or shelter? We did not evolve to be able to easily perform these complex cognitive tasks — or else philosophy and science would come naturally and easily to us.

    Now, there are cases where we do accept that certain phenomena can be presented under very different MOPs. For example, you can accept that the way a face looks can be presented to you either visually or by a highly complex description. Obama’s face can be presented in a photo or via some extremely elaborate description of all of the lines and points in his face, their colors, and their spatial relation to one another. (This description would essentially be a list of instructions for a computer to construct a picture of the face out of pixels.) If you see the photo of the face, a visual MOP of it, you recognize it at once. If you read this description of the face, you would not easily (if at all) recognize this as Obama’s face. These MOPs of his face are very different — one is linguistic and the other is visual — yet we are able to conceive of these two MOPs as presenting the same thing. We can do this only as adults with developed minds capable of a certain level of abstraction. As small children, we could probably not comprehend how a description could capture how the face looks. But in any case, we have here an example of a description capturing what we usually perceive only under a visual MOP. How is this case to be distinguished from the case of reddishness?

    In the case of reddishness, we do not merely have the contrast between a descriptive and visual MOP, as in the case of the face. We have the contrast between a descriptive and an introspective MOP. I think this makes it much harder to see the two MOPs as presenting the same thing. Furthermore, reddishness is atomic and unanalyzable in a way that a face is not. A face is the sum of its parts, so we can imagine that a description of the parts and their relation to one another can capture the face. But what are the parts of reddishness? There aren’t any, or at least any available to introspection. The atomic nature of reddishness (as we introspect it) leads us to reject out of hand any description of it. After all, a description is used to describe complex and intricate object/situations/ phenomena, whereas reddishness is presented as perfectly, simple, atomic, and homogenous.

    Because we have trouble seeing how descriptive MOPs could present reddishness, we tend to think of reddishness as an ineffable property — incapable to described using words. Thus, we have here a feature of experience that disposes us to judge that our experiences have ineffable aspects. We’ve taken a step towards explicating zero qualia.

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