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.

8
Leave a Reply

avatar
6 Comment threads
2 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
5 Comment authors
Dan ShabassonOliver LeechPhilip Hughesseth edenbaumPhilip Goff Recent comment authors

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
seth edenbaum
Guest

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… Read more »

seth edenbaum
Guest

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
Guest
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… Read more »

Philip Hughes
Guest
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… Read more »

Philip Goff
Guest

I accept illusionism as an option in logical space (as I argue here: http://conscienceandconsciousness.com/2014/06/30/could-consciousness-be-an-illusion/), 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… Read more »

seth edenbaum
Guest

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… Read more »

Oliver Leech
Guest
Oliver Leech

CONSCIOUSNESS: COULD IT BE AN ILLUSION? (A post from the blog: consciousnessmatters.wordpress.com 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… Read more »

Dan Shabasson
Guest

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… Read more »