Consciousness – it’s all been a terrible mistake. In a really cracking issue of the JCS (possibly the best I’ve read) Keith Frankish sets out and defends the thesis of illusionism, with a splendid array of responses from supporters and others.
How can consciousness be an illusion? Surely an illusion is itself a conscious state – a deceptive one – so that the reality of consciousness is a precondition of anything being an illusion? Illusionism, of course, is not talking about the practical, content-bearing kind of consciousness, but about phenomenal consciousness, qualia, the subjective side, what it is like to see something. Illusionism denies that our experiences have the phenomenal aspect they seem to have; it is in essence a sceptical case about phenomenal experience. It aims to replace the question of what phenomenal experience is, with the question of why people have the illusion of phenomenal experience.
In one way I wonder whether it isn’t better to stick with raw scepticism than frame the whole thing in terms of an illusion. There is a danger that the illusion itself becomes a new topic and inadvertently builds the confusion further. One reason the whole issue is so difficult is that it’s hard to see one’s way through the dense thicket of clarifications thrown up by philosophers, all demanding to be addressed and straightened out. There’s something to be said for the bracing elegance of the two-word formulation of scepticism offered by Dennett (who provides a robustly supportive response to illusionism here, as being the default case) – ‘What qualia?’. Perhaps we should just listen to the ‘tales of the qualophiles’ – there is something it is like, Mary knows something new, I could have a zombie twin – and just say a plain ‘no’ to all of them. If we do that, the champions of phenomenal experience have nothing to offer; all they can do is, as Pete Mandik puts it here, gesture towards phenomenal properties. (My imagination whimpers in fear at being asked to construe the space in which one might gesture towards phenomenal qualities, let alone the ineffable limb with which the movement might be performed; it insists that we fall back on Mandik’s other description; that phenomenalists can only invite an act of inner ostension.)
Eric Schwitzgebel relies on something like this gesturing in his espousal of definition by example as a means of getting the innocent conception of phenomenal experience he wants without embracing the dubious aspects. Mandik amusingly and cogently assails the scepticism of the illusionist case from an even more radical scepticism – meta-illusionism. Sceptics argue that phenomenalism can’t be specified meaningfully (we just circle around a small group of phrases and words that provide a set of synonyms with no definition outside the loop) , but if that’s true how do we even start talking about it? Whereof we cannot speak…
Introspection is certainly the name of the game, and Susan Blackmore has a nifty argument here; perhaps it’s the very act of introspecting that creates the phenomenal qualities? Her delusionism tells us we are wrong to think that there is a continuous stream of conscious experience going on in the absence of introspection, but stops short of outright scepticism about the phenomenal. I’m not sure. William James told us that introspection must be retrospection – we can only mentally examine the thought we just had, not the one we are having now – and it seems odd to me to think that a remembered state could be given a phenomenal aspect after the fact. Easier, surely, to consider that the whole business is consistently illusory?
Philip Goff is perhaps the toughest critic of illusionism; if we weren’t in the grip of scientism, he says, we should have no difficulty in seeing that the causal role of brain activity also has a categorical nature which is the inward, phenomenal aspect. If this view is incoherent or untenable in any way, we’re owed a decent argument as to why.
Myself I think Frankish is broadly on the right track. He sets out three ways we might approach phenomenal experience. One is to accept its reality and look for an explanation that significantly modifies our understanding of the world. Second, we look for an explanation that reconciles it with our current understanding, finding explanations within the world of physics of which we already have a general understanding. Third, we dismiss it as an illusion. I think we could add ‘approach zero’: we accept the reality of phenomenal experience and just regard it as inexplicable. This sounds like mysterianism – but mysterians think the world itself makes sense; we just don’t have the brains to see it. Option zero says there is actual irreducible mystery in the real world. This conclusion is surely thoroughly repugnant to most philosophers, who aspire to clear answers even if they don’t achieve them; but I think it is hard to avoid unless we take the sceptical route. Phenomenal experience is on most mainstream accounts something over and above the physical account just by definition. A physical explanation is automatically ruled out; even if good candidates are put forward, we can always retreat and say that they explain some aspects of experience, but not the ineffable one we are after. I submit that in fact this same strategy of retreat means that there cannot be any satisfactory rational account of phenomenal experience, because it can always be asserted that something ineffable is missing.
I say philosophers will find this repugnant, but I can sense some amiable theologians sidling up to me. Those light-weight would-be scientists can’t deal with mystery and the ineffable, they say, but hey, come with us for a bit…
Regular readers may possibly remember that I think that the phenomenal aspect of experience is actually just its reality; that the particularity or haecceity of real experience is puzzling to those who think that theory must accommodate everything. That reality is itself mysterious in some sense, though: not easily accounted for and not susceptible to satisfactory explanation either by induction or deduction. It may be that to understand that in full we have to give up on these more advanced mental tools and fall back on the basic faculty of recognition, the basis of all our thinking in my view and the capacity of which both deduction and induction are specialised forms. That implies that we might have to stop applying logic and science and just contemplate reality; I suppose that might mean in turn that meditation and the mystic tradition of some religions is not exactly a rejection of philosophy as understood in the West, but a legitimate extension of the same enquiry.
Yeah, but no; I may be irredeemably Western and wedded to scientism, but rightly or wrongly, meditation doesn’t scratch my epistemic itch. Illusionism may not offer quite the right answer, but for me it is definitely asking the right questions.