Illusion or identity?

Illusionists believe that consciousness involves no properties that are not detectable and fully describable by third-person science. Any other properties we think are involved are illusory. Suppose that’s right. Still, why should it follow that phenomenal properties are illusory? Why not say that they are properties that are detectable and fully describable by third-person science? It’s true (the objection continues) that we think of phenomenal properties as ones that present a problem for science — that pose a hard problem — but it doesn’t follow that they really do present one. Maybe we are just wrong about them.

Suppose that phenomenal concepts do in fact track completely unmysterious brain properties, which for some reason we mistakenly think of as nonphysical. There are many candidate explanations of why we might do this. If that’s the case (and illusionists don’t deny the possibility), then wouldn’t it be better to say that phenomenal properties are real but different from what we thought?

Here’s my answer. Maybe we could say that. It’s a revise-or-eliminate situation, and there is no simple procedure for determining the best way to go. But here are some reasons for rejecting the revisionary route.

First, it would invite confusion. The concept of the phenomenal carries a lot of connotations that physicalists must reject — assumptions about the reliability of introspection, intuitions about well-known thought experiments, associations with dualist notions such as sense data, and so on. Using a term with all this theoretical baggage is not the most perspicuous way of presenting a physicalist theory of consciousness.

Second, it would be misleading. The notion of phenomenal consciousness has become bound up with that of the hard problem — a problem that is supposed to be both substantive (there’s a real thing that needs explaining) and qualitatively different from ‘easy’ problems that can be solved by cognitive science. To offer a theory of phenomenal consciousness is to suggest that one has solved this hard problem, and physicalists shouldn’t do that. For physicalists, there is no hard problem, only the problem of explaining why there seems to be one.

Third, it would be tedious. In theoretical work, we’d have to laboriously disinfect phenomenal concepts before use, explicitly disavowing all their theoretical accretions.

Fourth, it would be pointless. After disinfection, we’d be left with nothing more than a bare demonstrative or quotational device, equivalent to ‘whatever this is’, applied introspectively. It’s not clear that this would pick out something determinate or theoretically interesting. We’d be gesturing at the whole complex perceptual-cum-reactive state triggered by the current stimulus, and without further specification it’s doubtful that the gesture would pick out a clear target for scientific investigation. (By contrast, gesturing at the supposed qualitative aspect of the state would narrow down the target, but only to something that physicalists must say is illusory.)

Fifth, it’s restricting. Physicalists need phenomenal concepts in their old theoretically laden senses in order to describe how people mistakenly think of consciousness (‘It seems that experiences have a phenomenal aspect as well as a functional one’). Compare the term ‘witch’. If we revise it to mean female naturopath, then it becomes harder to express what mediaeval people thought. After all, they were right to think that there were witches in that sense. Of course, this is only a linguistic problem and it could be solved by paraphrase, but it’s a consideration.

In the end, the concept of the phenomenal is too compromised to be useful to science. As Daniel Dennett says in his Consciousness Explained, let’s cut the tangled kite string and start over. Phenomenal properties are illusory.

Posted in Tricks of the mind and tagged .


  1. Can I ask you a question: what is pain in your view? Can we abstract away some real pattern (in Dennett’s sense) from body cell damage or from the activity of nociceptors which we can call “pain” even if it is very dissimilar to what it is traditionally meant when we talk about pain sensations?

    Is the same true of colors? Are colors species-specific saliences abstracted from complex physical reflectance properties of objects? If that were true, we could say that colors do exist even if they are not what many people think they are (intrinsic properties of objects)?

    What is left to be explained is how and why people conceptualize pains or colors (or consciousness) in a wrong way…

  2. Some sort of illusionist theory of phenomenal consciousness seems roughly correct to me.

    Except that it seems to me that “illusionist” is a bit of a misnomer — any description of *how* the illusion of phenomenal consciousness *actually occurs* will also be a description of phenomenal consciousness being caused.

    The illusion theorist will say: You clearly don’t understand illusionism! The whole point of illusionism is to explain why it *seems* as if phenomenal consciousness exists (even though it doesn’t).

    I will respond: Anything which lacks phenomenal consciousness obtains phenomenal consciousness on the occasion of it being successfully tricked into having it seem (to itself) as if it has phenomenal consciousness.

    The illusionist will ask: Hold on! Why call your view an *illusionist* theory of phenomenal consciousness? You obviously think that phenomenal consciousness is real (and so not an illusion)!

    I will answer: On the one hand, the cause of phenomenal consciousness *is* an illusion — in that something which lacks phenomenal consciousness is successfully *tricked* into having it seem to them as if they have phenomenal consciousness.

    On the other hand, the cause of phenomenal consciousness is *not* an illusion — in that something being tricked into having it seem (to them) as if they have phenomenal consciousness constitutes them having phenomenal consciousness.

    The peculiar variety of “illusion” I’m describing here is always and only successful (as an illusion) when the trick is real and when the trick and the reality are coeval.

    Put another way: Your illusion (that you have phenomenal consciousness) is *not* illusory unless it really does seem to you that you have phenomenal consciousness.

    But, if it really does seem to you that you have phenomenal consciousness, then this itself constitutes your having phenomenal consciousness?

  3. Analytic philosophers often seem to think that there is an answer to questions like “what is it like to be an X”. My strong suspicion is that there is nothing in the world that is stable enough to serve as an answer to that kind of question. They also seem to suppose that there should be answers to question like “what is it like to smell a rotten egg”. My strong suspicion is that there are no viable answers to these kinds of questions either (I would defer to A.S. Barwich on olfaction, but as I read her work smells are pretty clearly illusory in the relevant sense; and I think that similar cases can be developed pretty easily everywhere outside the domain of vision—the difficulties in making a case for vision are interesting, but I don’t want to dwell on them here). So far, I’m willing to follow you down a roughly elliminativist trajectory. But I don’t think we should try to eliminate all the way through, as you sometimes seem to want to do.

    Consider a common Buddhist example: the rope mistakenly perceived as a snake. Once you recognize that it’s a rope, the illusory snake dissipates; the Yogācāra philosophers go further, to suggest that once you recognize that all you are tracking is patterns of contrast, shading, texture, and the like, the rope will dissipate as well. I tend to agree with them, and I tend to think it’s possible to experience all of the persisting and stable phenomena that we encounter as illusory (I know that’s a step further than you want to go!). But if you go this way, it seems to me that there are likely to be many kinds of *experienced* phenomena that you can’t really get rid of. to be clear, I’m not trying to smuggle qualia back in. But I think that what you will find if you attend closely to what is happening is that the outputs of various sensory systems show up in ways that can’t be dismissed–I think that you agree with this, but I’m not sure.

    So here’s the question. Suppose that for each sensory domain, and for the domain of thinking, there are experiences that can be *identified* by reference to simple and fairly determinate properties (e.g., change in pressure, change in temperature, flows of breath through the body, edges, orientations, blurring, variations in shade, wanting, liking, fearing, etc). I don’t know exactly what is going to be left over when you pull apart the apparently stable and persisting objects (as I think you need to do if you are going hold on to the kind of anti-essentialism that I know you want to hold on to). But whatever we find at this point, why not eliminate the complex qualia that show up in everyday experience, and look for identities in this domain? Whatever these experiences are will be constantly rising, falling, and changing. And they will be parts of an ongoing embedded, embodied, and interactive process. But it seems strange of me to take the eliminativist line in this context.

    This is a long comment, and probably still not clear enough as we are coming at things from different perspectives. But hopefully it’s enough to generate a discussion…

  4. “dualist notions such as sense data”

    You must be referring to something more specific here than just data recorded from sense neurons or similar as that wouldn’t be dualist. Is this some specific theory that you are calling “dualist”?

  5. “..fully describable by third-person science.”

    I think there is room for a theory where everything is physical, but not fully describable by 3rd-person science.

    Consciousness is from a certain perspective, there is no experience without an experiencer (the only evidence for qualities (or illusory ‘qualities’) is 1st person, not 3rd person!). If physicalism is correct, then one’s perspective is contingent on a particular pattern of physical causes/effects (e.g., one’s brain/body). While a brain/body can be fully described with 3rd person science, the ‘view’ of the world from the perspective of that brain/body can *never* be exhaustively described with 3rd person science, because:

    One’s perspective
    a description of one’s perspective.

    No matter how much we add to the description, it is never completely what is being described. This discrepancy matters when we are talking about ‘what it is like’. You can tell me what it is like to be Keith Frankish, but because I will never BE Keith Frankish, the description won’t capture everything about being you, for somebody else to appreciate.

    You can BE Keith Frankish without error, but you cannot (even to yourself!) perfectly and exhaustively DESCRIBE Keith Frankish without leaving something out:

    The what it is like for Keith Frankish to BE Keith Frankish.

    For some reason, this impossibility of 3rd person science to capture everything drives people to think that there must be something more than physicalism (or, for illusionists, the impossibility is simply denied). But I think otherwise: a physicalist conception of everything can readily accommodate this impossibility, though can’t prove anything. I’m not proving physicalism is true here (because I’m begging the question), i’m just trying to say that physicalism can accommodate the hard problem, and that even if physicalism is true there is still something more than 3rd person knowledge.

  6. Nice post. I agree it’s a revise-or-eliminate situation. As I see it, that makes it a matter of choice, with no substantial matter of fact at issue.

    But how can that be? How can it be a matter of choice whether consciousness exists?

    Well, if there’s a matter of choice, it isn’t about that, it isn’t about the world, but just about what words we’re going to use to talk about it. The whole issue is solely terminological.

    After all, the revise-or-eliminate issue only arises to the extent that our word “consciousness” expresses a defective concept. If “consciousness” were fully determinate in meaning, then we should simply look to the facts to tell us what to say. Choosing to use the word differently would just tiresomely be switching terminology.

    But maybe “consciousness” isn’t fully determinate in meaning. I’m not sure about that, but am happy to grant it for today. So let us agree that “consciousness” is indeterminate, in that our language hasn’t decided whether the term refers (a) to states that are distinctively present for subjects and can be introspectively identified or (b) states that are like that and in addition are non-physical and essentially private.

    The reason our language hasn’t decided is that historically people supposed the same class of states would be picked out either way. But now we’re physicalists we can’t leave it like that. We don’t think (a) and (b) pick out the same things, because we don’t thing (b) picks out anything. So we face a decision about the word.

    At the level of concepts, all is clear enough. There’s the (a)-concept, perfectly cogent, picks out lots of real states. And the (b)-concept, equally cogent, doesn’t pick out any real states. No dispute among us physicalists about any of that.

    So the only issue is about terminology. Now that we realise that we can’t leave “consciousness” indeterminate between expressing the (a) and (b) concepts, which way do we go?

    If there’s a choice here, it seems to me pretty obvious that (a) is the best option. If the only issue is terminology, it seems to me I’ll have a much easier life expressing our agreed physicalism by telling people “Sure, there’s consciousness, you just need to understand it’s not non-physical nor essentially private” rather than “There is no consciousness, even though there are states that present for subjects and can be introspectively identified”.

    Still, you think there are arguments for going the other way terminologically. Let me say a bit about them.

    1. The fact that people have a lot of false ideas about something doesn’t mean that we need a new term for it. People used to be about as wrong as they could be about the sun, but Copernicus and Galileo and Eddington didn’t say “There’s no sun”. That would have been much more confusing. (They’d have had to say “There’s no sun, yet this other thing—SOL—has the earth rotating about it and is powered by nuclear fusion”. Much less confusing to say “you were wrong to think the sun rotated about the earth . . .”)

    2. Sure, the notion of phenomenal consciousness is associated with the so-called “hard problem”. But I don’t agree physicalists should dismiss this problem. Let’s first get clear about what it is. (Much of the last two decades of philosophy of mind is blighted by looseness on this.) Officially, in Chalmers’ 1990s work, the hard problem was simply to explain the reference of “phenomenal concepts” (in the technical sense—the kind of concept that Mary newly acquires). I think physicalists should say they have solved this problem just fine. Those phenomenal concepts refer to physical brain properties.

    It’s true, though, that the hard problem is normally presented by implicitly invoking dualist intuitions. “Why do brain states GIVE RISE to phenomenal feelings?” And of course physicalists shouldn’t try to answer questions like that. They should object that the phenomenal feelings aren’t something extra to the brain states (they ARE the brain states). Still, this (they ARE the brain states) seems a far better way of responding to the vulgar dualist-presupposing versions of the “hard problem” than denying that there are phenomenal feelings.

    3. Would it be tedious to retain “phenomenal consciousness” because of its theoretical accretions? By this stage I’m getting twitchy about whether it’s “consciousness” or “phenomenal consciousness” that’s at issue. You sometimes say it’s specifically the latter than concerns you. But the latter’s a technical term, introduced by Block, by contrast with “access consciousness”. Roughly, as I understand it, his concept of “phenomenal consciousness” is a kind of generic version of more specific phenomenal concepts (like Mary’s concept for her new type of colour experience). Block doesn’t rule out that the referent of this concept might be access consciousness (he spends much of his life producing further arguments that it isn’t). Anyway, qua technically introduced concept, it very much doesn’t have the accretions that you have in mind and that you say it would be tedious to disavow. Block is a committed physicalist.

    I grant that loose uses of “phenomenal consciousness” (and of “consciousness”) have plenty of associations with dualism etc. But it would scarcely be more tedious to disavow these than to have to explain, every time you deny that there is any (phenomenal) consciousness, that you’re not denying . . . (and then find some way to explain how you’re not denying that some internal goings-on are distinctively present and available for people).

    4. You worry that the concept shorn of its associations would be pointless. I don’t agree that it’s the job of concepts to embody publicly shared information. The job of concepts is to refer. Once you start building information into concepts, you’re down the road of theory-dependence of meaning, meaning variance, incommensurability. Keep it out. Millikan’s “White Queen Psychology” is very good on this.

    5. You’d like to use the term “phenomenal consciousness” specifically as a way of characterising bad thoughts (cf “people used to falsely believe in witches”, as opposed to “people used to think that all those (real) witches had made pacts with the devil”). OK I grant that this ease of characterizing others’ bad thoughts is a plus of the eliminativist option. The question is whether this plus is worth the cost of finding new way of formulating so many of our own good thoughts.

    • David — Thanks for your comments, which gave me a lot to think about. We’re close on much, but I’m not sure now that our difference is wholly terminological. Here are few thoughts, which frame things a bit differently from my original post.

      1) I don’t believe that consciousness is illusory, though some popular articles and interviews have gone out under titles that imply I do. I think ‘consciousness’ is a loose term, a bit like ‘memory’, which has its uses but doesn’t pick out a single thing. When we try to sharpen it up, I suspect we’re going to end up with lots of different notions — different shmonsciousnesses, as Liz Irvine puts it. But I no more deny that consciousness exists than I deny that memory does.

      2) So what do I want to eliminate? Well, the thing that people think presents a hard problem: mental paint — qualitative properties of mental states, presented to us introspectively. What exactly does ‘qualitative’ mean? I don’t really know (If you have to ask…), but it gestures at an introspectable aspect of experience that we feel is real, substantive, and quite unlike the structural and dynamical properties described by science. That’s what I mean by ‘phenomenal properties’. We have a strong tendency (given suitable prompting) to judge that phenomenal properties exist, but I think that’s an error.

      3) In characterizing phenomenal properties above, I didn’t mention features such as privacy, ineffability, non-physicality, etc. I don’t think phenomenal realists, even the anti-physicalist ones, see those features as core ones. Rather, they conceive of phenomenal properties as having an essential qualitative nature from which those features plausibly follow. If that’s right, then physicalists can’t redeem the concept simply by stripping away those features. They have to say that the core qualitative aspect itself is illusory — and that looks like the sort of radical change that justifies elimination.

      4) The concept I want to eliminate is at least roughly equivalent to Block’s concept of phenomenal consciousness, but I don’t think that means it’s a specialized technical one. I think Block was articulating and labelling a concept many people already had, not proposing a theoretical innovation.

      5) You suggest that ‘consciousness’ (and, I assume, ‘phenomenal states’) may be indeterminate between (a) states that are distinctively present for subjects and can be introspectively identified or (b) states that are like that and in addition are non-physical and essentially private. I assume b-states correspond to phenomenal properties in the sense above and a-states to physically acceptable versions of them. I’ve two worries about this. First, the definition of b-states doesn’t mention their qualitative nature, and I’m not sure that phenomenal realists would agree that it captures what they want to be realist about. Second, what does it mean to say that a-states are ‘distinctively present for subjects’? Does it just mean that they have distinctive effects on our judgements and reactive dispositions (which I’d be happy with) or is something more meant?

      6) My post started with the supposition that it might turn out that phenomenal concepts refer to structural/dynamical properties instead of qualitative ones. Perhaps they track clusters of reactive dispositions. Or perhaps they pick out properties of external objects. (We could be wrong about their being introspective concepts.) Then we get into the revise-or-eliminate situation, where the issues are mainly terminological. I said that illusionists can allow this possibility, but I should stress that they aren’t committed to it. They might hold that phenomenal properties are posits of a deeply flawed theory and that phenomenal concepts don’t refer at all. Or they might say that phenomenal concepts don’t refer uniquely — that they gesture at a range of states without uniquely identifying any one. I don’t think these options can be ruled out.

      • The phenomenality is “automatic”.
        Objectivity is common subjectivity. Objectivity originates from subjectivity.
        Subjectivity applies on objectivity and not vice versa
        Introspection is automatic feedback

  7. David Papineau
    Excellent, excellent and excellent.
    Consciousness is a feedback mechanism and sense of changes. Consciousness helps to manage changes.
    Awareness of changes is function of subjectivity and subjectivity is “Sovereign”.
    Illusory or real, subject has sovereign rights. Normal and paranormal is social criteria. Sovereignty of subject grant him full right to have his own laws of righteousness.

  8. Good. I think we’re making progress, Keith. Much better to get clear on what does and doesn’t exist than to fuss about which words we’re using.

    On the substantial issues, I take myself to be in full agreement with you. In particular, I agree that many people have mistaken views about consciousness which encourage dualist thinking, and have written inordinate amounts over the years trying to diagnose these mistakes.*

    Still, for what it’s worth, when it comes to the terminology, I’ve just written a book about the properties involved in sensory experience, in which I characterise my view (as against naive realism and representationalism) as “the qualitative view” which holds that sensory experience is “all mental paint”. Moreover, my position, in response to the “hard problem” of identifying the referents of phenomenal concepts, is that these concepts refer to structural brain states (and along with that I hold that Ned Block’s “phenomenal consciousness” is one and the same as something in the region of access consciousness).

    So. despite agreeing with you on the substantial issues, I seem to be using “qualitative”, “mental paint”, “hard problem” and “phenomenal consciousness” differently from you. I’m inclined to think that my usage is standard, at least in philosophical circles, but I really don’t want to go to the wall about that. I’m perfectly ready to phrase my position in more neutral terms if that would be helpful.

    For my latest shot, see pp 18-20 of this:

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