Is the hard problem an illusion?

An oddly shaped iceberg

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.