Caricaturing attempts to crack consciousness

On 15 May this year, The Spectator magazine published an by Kit Wilson titled ‘Cracking consciousness: how do our minds really work?’. I disagreed with much of the article, which I felt gave a seriously unbalanced view of consciousness science, but I was particularly annoyed by the author’s presentation of the illusionist view to which I myself subscribe. Partisanship is one thing, but downright misrepresentation is another, and I sent a brief letter to the magazine protesting about it. Since the editor decided not to publish it, I am posting it here.

Sir: As the person who coined the term ‘illusionism’, I want to protest against the mischaracterization of the illusionist view in Kit Wilson’s article ‘Cracking consciousness: how do our minds really work?’ (15 May 2022). Wilson says that illusionists ‘deny the mind exists’, and he uncritically quotes dismissive assessments (‘essentially gibberish’, ‘the silliest claim ever made’) from two of the view’s most hostile critics. Your readers deserve better.

Illusionists do not deny that mind and consciousness exist. They merely reject a certain view of what consciousness is. Specifically, they deny that consciousness involves awareness of what philosophers call ‘qualia’ — private mental versions of colours, sounds, tastes, and so on. Illusionists argue that qualia are illusory, and they offer alternative accounts of consciousness that do not mention them. Wilson suggests that this view is ‘self-evidently self-defeating’ since the illusion of consciousness would itself be a conscious one, but this facile objection ignores the fact that illusionists conceive of consciousness (and thus of illusion) as not involving qualia.

Illusionism may not be the right view, but it is an alternative to the outlandish and untestable speculation Wilson discusses elsewhere in his piece, and it deserves to be assessed on its merits rather than dismissed on the basis of a crude caricature.

Keith Frankish
(Honorary Reader, University of Sheffield)
Heraklion, Greece

Posted in Blog.

2 Comments

  1. The article certainly dealt with illusionism unfairly, and as you say went off the deep end in its anti-materialism second half. Still, I’m not sure how illusionism handles the colors and other qualities sometimes present in dreams, hallucinations, and afterimages, qualities which, after all, are not out there in the world but somehow mind-dependent. I think you’d deny there is anything really qualitative about having such conscious episodes: there are no “private mental versions of colours, sounds, tastes, and so on” present; rather, according to illusionism, qualities only inhere in, are only properties of, physical objects. I hope this captures your view accurately.

  2. I think your protest is actually a mis-representation of your own position Keith. Indeed, you do not believe that mind is a separate, distinct, autonomous system that emerges from and operates on the substrate of the brain. Your claim is that mind is a collection of causal effects which are the result of functional processes within the brain therefore technically speaking, mind does not exist.

    Secondarily, your final paragraph is another mis-representation because Penrose’s ORCH theory of consciousness is a promising theory based upon science not wild speculation. If mind is indeed a separate and distinct system that is quantum, then there will be a physics to support that claim. And since we know absolutely next to nothing about the quantum world, that physics may be a long time in coming. But nevertheless, it is a physical theory that does not require any form of dualism to explain the mind and the mind’s experience of consciousness.

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