Introducing mephistos

Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint! — J. W. Goethe, Faust I, 1338 Zombies are not conscious but believe they are. They are as tempted as we are to believe that their experiences possess nonphysical qualitative properties, but they are wrong. I want to introduce another class of creatures, who are conscious but don’t believe they are. They are consciousness deniers. As a nod to the denying spirit depicted by Goethe, I’ll call them mephistos. Let me tell you a little about them. Mephistos are conscious in just the way we are. Their brains are like ours and they inhabit a world like ours, with the same physical laws, the same psycho-physical laws (if there are any), and the same quiddities (if there are any). So if our experiences possess nonphysical qualitative properties, then theirs do too. However, mephistos don’t conceptualize their consciousness in the way we do, as […]

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The last word about Mary

What happens when Mary leaves her black-and-white room and has a red colour experience for the first time? Here’s the answer, in outline. (I’ll assume for the sake of argument that Mary has developed the neural circuitry required for colour vision.) Mary’s visual system begins tracking something red, generating a huge set of active, interconnected first-order informational states, which in turn generate a vast range of reactions and reactive dispositions. Call complex of first-order informational and reactive states R1. Mary’s introspective system begins tracking the states in R1, generating a huge set of active, interconnected second-order informational states, which in turn generate a vast range of reactions and reactive dispositions. Call this complex of higher-order informational and reactive states R2. Mary has never instantiated R1 and R2 before and there was no practicable way to induce them in her pre-release. The informational states in R1 and R2 carry a mass […]

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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 […]

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Consciousness is a life-transforming illusion

In 2015 I was invited to write a short piece on consciousness for the magazine Aeon. The text now appears to be unavailable on Aeon, so I am reposting it here. From the moment we wake we are bombarded with stimuli. Electromagnetic radiation floods our eyes, pressure waves hit our ears, surfaces press against our skins, molecules adhere to the membranes of our noses and tongues. Our sense organs react, sending nerve impulses to our brains, where they trigger waves of neural activity, which may culminate in motor commands to our muscles (shielding our eyes from the light, for example). But something else happens, too. We have conscious experiences. We see a bright light, hear a scream, feel the roughness of a surface. There is something it is like to detect the stimuli; each experience has a distinctive qualitative aspect — a quale in philosopher’s jargon (plural qualia). Such experiences […]

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Nothing but

Many people find physicalism an inhumane, philistine view. I wish I could dispel that idea. What underlies it, I suspect, is the ‘nothing but’ thought: If we are nothing but matter, then where is our specialness, our value, our subjectivity? But why does it matter what we are made of? Suppose we were immaterial souls instead of physical beings. Would that make us special? Why? Couldn’t we still worry that we were nothing but soul stuff? So where does our specialness come from? Perhaps our physical bodies are infused with a nonphysical essence that confers subjectivity and value? But that suggestion explains nothing at all. It’s just saying that are special because we possess an intrinsic specialness. I think there’s a better way of looking at it. It’s not the stuff we’re made of that matters, nor some essence within it. It’s the way the stuff is organized. Is Michelangelo’s […]

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How to annihilate everything

Does reality get on your nerves? Do you sometimes wish there was nothing at all? Then this is the post for you! Read on, and I’ll show you how to prune your ontology down to nothing. It’s easy and won’t harm anyone or anything. Ready? Let’s start by clearing out the attic. We’ll throw out abstract objects and universals, together with mathematical objects and structures. We’ll get rid of possible worlds too — the actual one is more than enough! And we can manage without God, can’t we? In fact, let’s get rid of everything supernatural while we’re at it. It’s already feeling less stuffy. But we need to live more in the moment. Let’s let go of the past — and the future with it. Only the present moment exists. We’ve made good progress. But scientists keep cluttering the place up with things we can’t even see. We’ll put […]

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For the record

A little note on something that happened on Twitter. Yesterday I created a gender-swap image of myself with FaceApp. I liked it — it give me a different perspective on myself — and I posted it on Twitter. Some people liked it and no one complained. Later, one person (not themselves trans, I believe) wrote to say that they felt such images were disrespectful to trans women. They were polite and didn’t ask me to remove the image. However, I became concerned that some trans women might think I was mocking them, and I decided to delete the image, just in case. I didn’t do it because I felt bullied or because I was worried the image would harm me professionally, and I wouldn’t delete a post I felt strongly about. (If you scroll back through my Twitter feed, you’ll see that I have posted and robustly defended plenty of […]

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The phenomenal concept strategy is a worn-out band-aid

For a quarter of a century, the default physicalist response to arguments for property dualism has been the phenomenal concept strategy (PCS). The strategy turns on a claim about the nature of our phenomenal concepts — the concepts we employ when we attend to our current experiences and think about what they are like. There are many variants of the strategy, and the literature on it is large and technical, but the core idea is simple. It’s this. Phenomenal concepts function as bare referential devices — demonstratives perhaps. They do not pick out their referents as properties that fit some physical description but latch onto them directly via the exercise of some mental capacity. Since we do not conceptualize phenomenal properties as physical ones, we can easily imagine them varying independently of the physical facts, and this accounts for the intuitions that drive the anti-physicalist arguments — intuitions about zombies, […]

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Accelerating research on consciousness?

Back in December, psychologist and author Christian Jarrett got in touch to ask what I thought about the new project “Accelerating Research on Consciousness” organised by the Templeton World Charity Foundation. See this news story for more information about the project. Christian incorporated some of my comments into an article for BBC Focus magazine (which I recommend) but I thought I’d post my full reply here, in case anyone is interested. Here it is. I have mixed feelings about the project. I’m delighted to see more funding for experimental work on consciousness. The data collected will undoubtedly be useful. I have worries, however. It looks like the project will focus on explaining consciousness in the phenomenal sense. That is, the organizers and participants conceive of conscious states as essentially subjective ones, involving awareness of phenomenal properties or qualia (the private mental ‘feel’ or ‘what-it-likeness’ of experience). If that’s right, then […]

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Bright shiny colours

What are colours? My view is that they are properties of surfaces in the world around us — albeit complex gerrymanded ones, which can be picked out only by reference to our reactions to them. Blue things are things that evoke a certain distinctive cluster of reactive dispositions in us. Note that that I do not say that they are ones that produce blue sensations in us. I don’t think that experiencing blue involves entertaining a mental version of blueness — a blue quale or phenomenal property. Where then is the quality of blueness ? It’s not out there in the world. Out there there’s just a surface with a microstructure that reflects certain wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. And I’ve denied that there is any blue quality in our minds. So where is the blueness of the blue? My answer is that it is not really anywhere. It’s a property […]

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