Illusionism and Consciousness

Consciousness is mystifying — in particular, we have made very little progress on the hard problem of explaining how it is that we have inner subjective experience at all. This has led to an increasing popularity in various forms of panpsychism, where consciousness is posited as being fundamental in some way. I’ll have a lot more to say about panpsychism in the near future, particularly as I’ll be doing a detailed live-blog of Annaka Harris’s new book Conscious.

Before I get to panpsychism in upcoming posts, I wanted to describe another strategy for facing the hard problem: deny that it exists. Specifically, if we deny that phenomenal consciousness exists, then there is no hard problem to explain. You may remember from a recent post that phenomenal consciousness relates to inner experience, “subjective feels,” or qualia. The view that phenomenal consciousness is an illusion is sometimes called eliminativism, or illusionism, and it’s a view advocated by some philosophers including Daniel Dennett and Keith Frankish.

How could anyone be an illusionist regarding phenomenal consciousness? It’s difficult to make the positive case in one blog post, but here are a couple of ways to help understand it:

  • People used to believe in an element called phlogiston that was supposedly involved in combustion. But as science progressed and our understanding of combustion improved, the phlogiston theory was rejected. There is no element called phlogiston — in other words, the term phlogiston does not refer. Illusionists can make a similar argument: we have the word consciousness, and so we think there is this unitary phenomenon of consciousness, but in fact the word does not refer. (This example comes from Dennett).
  • In contrast with the hard problem of consciousness, there are the so-called “easy problems” of explaining things like awareness, perception, and information integration. The illusionist says that once the easy problems are solved, there will be nothing left over to solve.

Unfortunately, this view faces some serious challenges. At the very least, it is radically at odds with our intuitions. But it’s not even clear whether it is coherent. The philosopher Galen Strawson has called illusionism “the silliest claim ever made.” What are some of the criticisms of this view?

  1. We have direct acquaintance with our inner experience. This makes consciousness very different from phlogiston. Each person is familiar with their own inner experience. You could argue that it is the thing of which we are most certain.
  2. An illusion of experience is still a type of experience. Here are Strawson’s words: “Suppose you’re hypnotized to feel intense pain. Someone may say that you’re not really in pain, that the pain is illusory, because you haven’t really suffered any bodily damage. But to seem to feel pain is to be in pain. It’s not possible here to open up a gap between appearance and reality, between what is and what seems.” We could call this the no-gap argument.
  3. Finally, an illusion implies an experiencer who is experiencing the illusion. This is closely related to the previous objection. If an illusion of experience is still a type of experience, then there must be an experiencer for this illusion.

One of the best ways to understand illusionism and its critics is to look at Keith Frankish’s book Illusionism. It contains a core essay by Frankish, and then responses by other philosophers. To his credit, Frankish seems to recognize that illusionists have serious work cut out for them in order to make this into a coherent theory — whereas Dennett, for example, sees it as the “obvious default theory.”

In his core essay, Frankish addresses the three objections listed above. I’m not convinced by his responses, but will make just a few brief comments here.

  1. Frankish says that if we have direct acquaintance with our phenomenal consciousness, it would have to be causally inert or psychologically insignificant. The reason, he claims, is that we would have to form imperfect mental representations of the experience in order to communicate it to anyone, including ourselves. But it is not clear to me why he thinks that something that is ineffable must be causally inert. He also says this view seems to imply an anti-physicalist view of consciousness (I’ll save anti-physicalism for later).
  2. In his response to the no-gap argument (Section 3.2), he basically just says that illusionists deny this argument. But I think he recognizes that this is not really a sufficient rebuttal, as he continues with “this requires some account of the content of the representations involved, and providing this will be a major challenge for the illusionist.”
  3. To the experiencer argument, Frankish responds with a strategy that I will call distributing the experiencer. He writes, “…the work of reacting to [the illusion] can, and must, be distributed across such subsystems. There need be no unified audience for the illusionism smaller than the organism as a whole…” My response is that distributing the experiencer does not get rid of the experiencer. This reminds me of when I was a kid and didn’t want to eat something on my plate — I would spread it thinly all over my plate. But I wasn’t fooling anyone.

Still, I think Frankish’s chapter is where you want to start if you want to learn more about this view.

In an upcoming post, I’ll list one more major challenge for this illusionist view.