Illusionism and compassion

I often get emails from people who have questions about illusionism. Most of them focus on the theory itself, but recently I received one that raised concerns about its emotional and ethical implications. The writer was persuaded that that illusionsm was true, but found it a deeply disturbing view, which, they felt, undermined the bases for empathy and compassion. Why should we care about other people and creatures if what’s happening in them is just a bunch of physical processes with no subjective component? Why should we even care about ourselves, if our subjective experience is an illusion? How, they asked, did I handle these implications of my view? Or were they not genuine implications after all? (That is a brief paraphrase the writer’s concerns, which were eloquently and feelingly expressed.)

Now, I don’t believe that illusionism has these that pessimistic consequences (just the opposite, in fact), but it worries me that some people think it does, and I plan to address these issues in my future work. For the moment, however, I will share my reply to my correspondent. Here is it, revised and edited a little.

I can see why you think that views like mine and Dennett’s might have negative consequences for the way we feel about other people and about ourselves. Many people share this concern, but I believe they are wrong, deeply wrong. I don’t think these negative consequences follow, and, in fact, I think that a materialistic perspective provides a much better foundation for value, empathy, and self-worth than the dualistic alternative. There’s a huge amount to say here, but let me sketch the outline.

The first point to make is that, like Dennett, I do not deny that we have conscious experiences, including bodily sensations of pain and pleasure, nor do I deny that these states matter morally. I just reject a certain theory of what conscious experiences are — the theory that says they involve acquaintance with private mental qualities or qualia. It’s qualia that I think are illusory, not consciousness itself.

Of course, some people think that qualia are essential to consciousness, and so I am denying consciousness in their sense. But to assume that their sense is the right one is to beg the question against my alternative. You can’t make a theory of consciousness true simply by defining consciousness as whatever your theory says it is! Science is continually correcting our naive theories of things.

So what is my alternative view? Roughly, it is that conscious experiences are complex informational-cum-reactive states: to have a conscious experience of something is to be receiving a stream of detailed sensory information about it and to be reacting to this information in a characteristic range of ways. So being in pain, say, doesn’t involve being acquainted with a private mental awfulness, but reacting in a host of negative ways to sensory information about the state of one’s body. The idea that our experiences have a private qualitative nature is a sort of illusion, which arises from the fact our brains monitor their own reactive processes and generate reactions to them in turn.

Here’s a recent article in which I try to explain this in a bit more detail:

So why is pain bad? The short answer is that it’s bad because it signals that we are in a bad physical state — a state of sickness or injury — and because the reactions involved, both physiological and psychological, are of a negative, aversive kind. It’s a state we don’t like being in and that we want to stop being in.

I believe this account makes pain more real, more morally important, and easier to empathize with than the qualia one. Why do I say that? Because on the qualia view, pain is something that is wholly private and only contingently connected with pain reactions. We are all locked into private mental realities, and no one can ever really be sure what another person is feeling. That’s a view that seems to me scary and alienating.

A key point for me is that, even if they were real, qualia would only matter if they had effects on us. Pain qualia would only be a matter of moral concern if they produced pain reactions. If they didn’t, or if they produced other reactions instead, then why should we care about them? Suppose I am having intense pain qualia, but they are disconnected from the rest of my psychology and I’m sitting quietly, relaxing, sipping a drink, and assuring you that I feel absolutely fine. Should you be concerned for me? And what on earth could you do if you were? Any action you took would only affect my reactions, which are fine anyway. Can you even imagine the scenario? Can you separate out a pure essence of pain, distinct from all pain reactions, mental and physical? I can’t. Yet qualia realists have to say that scenarios like this are at least theoretically possible, since they hold that qualia are only contingently connected with reactions: it’s not what they do that matters, but what they are.

Look at it like this. Suppose I convince you that I don’t have qualia. And suppose you see me injure myself horribly. My stress levels soar, and I exhibit all the psychological and physiological signs of intense pain. I’m tensed up, grimacing, crying out, telling you that I feel terrible, and begging for assistance. What would you do? Would you help me, or would you ignore my pleas on the grounds that these are just physical reactions and I’m not experiencing the mental essence of pain? I’m sure you’d help. The point is that we don’t need to posit a hidden qualitative essence to justify empathy. The fact that someone is reacting negatively is enough. Pain is as pain does; it’s all there in our psychological and physiological engagement with the world, and it’s evident to anyone who cares to look. (The real cause for pessimism here is that too often people don’t care to look.)

In short, value is rooted in effects, not essences. Here’s a short piece by Daniel Dennett which uses the example of monetary value to drive home the point:

The same goes for ourselves. We don’t need to have some non-physical essence — whether it be an immaterial soul or a private world of phenomenal properties — in order to have value and self-worth. Those things come from how we live and interact with the world and other people. We create value and self-worth through our engagement with the world around us and the people in it. It’s what do and how we react that matters, not some hidden essence.

So that’s roughly how I see it. I believe that the implications of illusionism are the opposite of the pessimistic ones some people see. As I see it, we aren’t sealed off from each other in private mental worlds, and our value doesn’t depend on mysterious essences. Everything that matters is out here in the open, in this wonderful physical world, and this is where we must seek meaning and value. I find this a comforting view. It means that that we are, in a sense, all one, part of the same world, and that — if we try hard enough — we can truly understand each other.

Posted in Blog, Consciousness, Mind.


  1. You remark that in your view quality are not real, but that a consequence of quality being real would be “We are all locked into private mental realities, and no one can ever really be sure what another person is feeling.”. Can I just point out that there is a condition known to Psychiatrists in which some people don’t actually know what they, themselves, are feeling? I think this strengthens your argument, as I understand it, because if we know how we are feeling by an inferential process in a way which has the same nature but not degree as the way we know others feelings..

  2. This question is addressed directly in Buddhist scripture. This is from the Vimalakirti Sutra (Thruman translation). I’m not much of a Buddhist but this passage really struck me with how directly in dealt with this difficult philosophical problem:

    Thereupon, Manjusri, the crown prince, addressed the Licchavi Vimalaldrti: “Good sir, how should a bodhisattva regard all living beings?”

    Vimalakirti replied, “Manjusri, a bodhisattva should regard all living beings as a wise man regards the reflection of the moon in water or as magicians regard men created by magic. He should regard them as being like a face in a mirror; like the water of a mirage; like the sound of an echo; like a mass of clouds in the sky; like the previous moment of a ball of foam; like the appearance and disappearance of a bubble of water;…like the perception of color in one blind from birth; ,,, like the track of a bird in the sky; like the erection of a eunuch; like the pregnancy of a barren woman…

    “Precisely thus, Manjusri, does a bodhisattva who realizes ultimate selflessness consider all beings.”

    Manjusri then asked further, “Noble sir, if a bodhisattva considers all living beings in such a way, how does he generate the great love toward them?”

    Vimalakirti replied, “Manjusri, when a bodhisattva considers all living beings in this way, he thinks: ‘Just as I have realized the Dharma, so should I teach it to living beings.’ Thereby, he generates the love that is truly a refuge for all living beings; the love that is peaceful because free of grasping; the love that is not feverish, because free of passions; the love that accords with reality because it is equanimous in all three times; the love that is without conflict because free of the violence of the passions; the love that is nondual because it is involved neither with the external.nor with the internal; the love that is imperturbable because totally ultimate.

    “Thereby he generates the love that is firm, its high resolve unbreakable, like a diamond; the love that is pure, purified in its intrinsic nature; the love that is even, its aspirations being equal; the saint’s love that has eliminated its enemy; the bodhisattva’s love that continuously develops living beings; the Tathágata’s love that understands reality; the Buddha’s love that causes living beings to awaken from their sleep; the love that is spontaneous because it is fully enlightened spontaneously;6 the love that is enlightenment because it is unity of experience; the love that has no presumption because it has eliminated attachment and aversion…

  3. So you think it’s the external behavior and the fact that the body is sending nerve impulses in a way that causes that behavior that makes pain morally relevant, not the (illusory) inner experience of pain?

    So why should we consider a human with no inner, private experiences (what most would just call “experiences”) any more morally relevant than a robot that can mimic such pain behavior? Such a robot would also have no inner, private experiences (i.e. experiences).

    What is the morally relevant difference between the above examples? Why does the one third-person occurrence have a moral dimension but not the other third-person occurrence? Because one involves carbon and proteins and the other involves silicone and WD-40?

    And you say you don’t deny consciousness experience, but you define it as consisting entirely of third-person occurrences happening to biological objects (i.e. people). What similarity at all does that have to the vast, vast majority of people’s understanding of what consciousness is?

    Why not just say you don’t believe that we’re really conscious rather than defining it in an unrecognizable way? Isn’t that kind of like saying you don’t deny the existence of God, but then just defining “God” as “the universe”? In such a case, wouldn’t it make more sense (and be far less confusing) to just say you don’t believe in God?

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