Do illusionists deny the reality of consciousness? I’ve been discussing this on Twitter recently (see this thread, among others), and it has promoted me to try to think of analogies that might illuminate the illusionist perspective.
Here’s one: rainbows. Rainbows are real, aren’t they? You can see them with your own eyes — though you have to be in the right position, with the sun behind you. You can point them out to other people — provided they take up a similar position to you. Heck, you can even photograph them.
But what exactly is it that’s real? It seems as if there’s an actual gauzy, multi-coloured arc stretching across the sky and curving down to meet the ground at a point to which you could walk. Our ancestors may have thought rainbows were like that. We know better, of course. There’s no real coloured arc up there. Nor are there any specific physical features arranged arcwise — the rainbow’s “atmospheric correlates”, as it were. There are just water droplets evenly distributed throughout the air and reflecting sunlight in such a way that from your vantage point there appears to be a multi-coloured arc.
To sum up:
- Rainbows, whatever they are: real
- Coloured, spatially located aerial arcs: illusory
- Experiences as of coloured, spatially located aerial arcs: real
- Atmospheric conditions that cause experiences as of multi-coloured, spatially located aerial arcs: real
That’s very much how illusionists think of consciousness. It’s real enough. It’s the condition you’re in when you attend to things perceptually. I have it; you have it, scientists can study it. But, like a rainbow, it’s not what we naively take it to be.
When I reflect on my own experience, it seems to me that my consciousness is an inner world, where the world around me is rendered in private mental qualities — “qualia” — for my benefit alone. But there isn’t such a world. Neuroscience finds nothing like it in the brain, nor even anything isomorphic to it. Rather, it finds complex trains of neural activity proceeding in parallel and triggering a host of reactions — physiological, psychological, and behavioural. My sense of having a rich qualia-filled inner world is an impression created by all these processes, but the processes themselves are as different from the supposed inner world as a moisture-infused mass of air is from a colourful aerial arc.
To sum up:
- Consciousness, whatever it is: real
- A private qualia-filled mental world: illusory
- The impression of a private qualia-filled mental world: real
- Brain processes that produce the impression of a private qualia-filled mental world: real
I know what you are going to say! You’re going to ask about that impression of a private qualia world. What’s that exactly? Isn’t it a conscious experience — like the experience of seeing a rainbow — which itself belongs to a private qualia-filled mental world? If so, the whole idea is circular. I seem to be saying that the qualia world exists only in another qualia world. Does that second qualia world exist only in a third one, then, and so on? Ridiculous!
If illusionists thought like that, then their view would indeed be ridiculous. But they don’t. They don’t think that experiences exist in qualia worlds at all. They offer alternative accounts of what experiences are that don’t mention qualia. On the view I favour, experiences are complex sets of perceptually triggered psychological reactions and reactive dispositions. To have an experience as of a colourful arc in the sky is to form beliefs, memories, emotions, and a host of other reactive dispositions appropriate to the presence of such an arc. It is to be, as it were, in “sensing sky arc mode”. Similarly, to be under the impression that one has an inner qualia world is to react psychologically as if one had an inner qualia world — to think, talk, and react in countless other way as if such a world existed. That suggestion needs a lot of fleshing out, of course, and you might think it won’t work, but at least it shows that illusionists aren’t making a ridiculously circular claim.
That’s the analogy then. Consciousness is as real as a rainbow. It exists, but it is not a private qualia world, any more than a rainbow is a physical arc in the sky. So trying to find the neural correlates of the qualia world is as sensible as trying to find an arc-shaped structure in the atmosphere after a rain shower. And searching for a solution to the Hard Problem is like looking for the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow!
PS. After posting this piece, I was delighted to find that Daniel Dennett gave it his stamp of approval: