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Tallis in Wonderland

The Illusion of Illusionism

Raymond Tallis sees through a physicalist confusion.

Consciousness has always been a serious embarrassment for those who believe that everything is physical and that physics is the most authoritative account of the material world. There is, it seems, nothing in matter or energy as seen through the eyes of physics that explains how a part of the material world might become aware of itself and the world surrounding it, as is the case with conscious subjects, such as readers of Philosophy Now. Physicalism cannot account for the emergence of minds from a purely physical reality.

Physicalist philosophers often try to tame the conscious mind by reducing it to the locus of functional connections between incoming sensory stimuli and outgoing bodily behaviour. Consciousness then becomes a tapestry of causal pathways passing through the nervous system of the organism. Given that the links in this causal chain are physical events, most importantly neural discharges, the conscious mind can then be fitted comfortably into the physicalist world picture, so the physicalist claims.

Quite rightly, this does not satisfy many philosophers. David Chalmers famously distinguished between ‘the easy’ and ‘the hard’ problems of consciousness. While functionalist stories, he argued, may account for some overt behaviour associated with being conscious, it cannot deal with the experiential (aka phenomenal or subjective) dimensions of consciousness – the ‘what it is like to be’ an entity having awareness. His hard problem is how brain activity can produce conscious awareness at all.

In his most detailed development of the hard/easy distinction (The Character of Consciousness, 2010), Chalmers’ list of ‘easy’ problems in the philosophy of mind includes: how the brain can discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli; our capacity to describe our mental states; our ability to focus our attention, or deliberately to control our behaviour; how our cognitive systems acquire and integrate information; and the difference between wakefulness and sleep. Yet for me, understanding all these aspects of consciousness is as hard as explaining experience. Attention, deliberation about one’s behaviour, and wakefulness, are also things about which we can ask the question, “What is it like?” Likewise dream-filled sleep. Indeed, if these features did not feel like anything – if there was nothing it was like to experience them – they would not be what they’re supposed to be. What’s more, difficult questions would remain about why they at least seem to feel like something. ‘Seeming to feel like’ is no more amenable to a physicalist explanation than ‘feeling like’, as seeming also presupposes experience.

Be that as it may, most philosophers think that the phenomenal, or quality of sensation, of ‘what-it-is-like’ consciousness – qualia, such as the smell of cheese, the sight of red, and the feeling of pain – present an especial challenge to physicalism. There is nothing in neural activity – which physically speaking is simply the passage of ions through semi-permeable membranes – that accounts for these experiences. After all, similar neural activity in the spinal cord, the cerebellum, and most of the cerebral cortex, is not associated with consciousness.

Abracadabra, Your Mind is Matter!

Zan Zig
Zan Zig performing with rabbit and roses 1899

Enter the illusionists. The most lucid and committed among them is Keith Frankish, who embraces ‘strong illusionism’. According to Frankish, “phenomenal consciousness, as usually conceived, is illusory” (‘Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol.23, 2016). In case you’re wondering whether you read that correctly, he adds, “According to illusionists, our sense that it is like something to undergo conscious experiences is due to the fact that we systematically misrepresent them (or, in some versions, their objects) as having phenomenal properties.” So phenomenal consciousness is an illusion – the product of introspection misrepresenting cerebral events. This remains true even when the phenomenal experiences are projected onto external objects – as when we see a red apple or locate a pain in our foot.

In this way, illusionism denies any need for radical theoretical innovation to deal with phenomenal experiences – because they are illusory. The challenge now becomes, not to explain why experiences have phenomenal properties, but why they seem to have them. And so the problem of phenomenal consciousness is replaced by the illusion problem; of how it comes about that we misrepresent complex physical events in the brain as simple phenomenal ones.

There is an obvious objection to illusionism. How can I be wrong about the existence of something for which I have inescapable evidence? Of course, I can be mistaken as to the existence of something that I believe is out there because of my experiences: I may incorrectly think I have seen a red apple. Or I may incorrectly classify it as a plum. I cannot, however, be mistaken that I have had an experience of a colour (even though I might misname it because I have a poor grasp of colour terminology). But while phenomenal consciousness can be mistaken as to its description or its object, it cannot be mistaken as to its own existence. The belief that I am seeing a pink elephant may be erroneous; but not that I am having the experience of seeing a pink elephant. In short, a phenomenal experience does not have to be veridical to exist, or to have happened, or to require explanation. My being wrong about the intentional object of my experience does not prove that I did not have the experience.

The obvious problem for anyone denying the existence of phenomenal consciousness is that they have to doubt something whose existence is indubitable. Just try doubting the reality of toothache when you’re in the grip of it. While such experiences may not portray what’s going on in your brain, they are no less real for that. There is no appearance-reality gap for the sufferer from toothache, or indeed for any ‘hard’ (to explain) conscious experience. The other phenomenal experiences that you have while you are looking about you as you sit in the waiting room, clutching your jaw, are no less real, either.

And what of the illusionist claim that phenomenal experience is a simplistic representation, or indeed a misrepresentation, of physical events in the brain? Daniel Dennett, another prominent illusionist, compares phenomenal consciousness to the ‘user illusions’ generated by the graphical interfaces, through which we interact with, and control, computers (see Consciousness Explained, 1991). Other illusionists, for example Shaun Nicholls and Todd Graham, have argued (in ‘Adaptive Complexity and Phenomenal Consciousness’, Philosophy of Science, 67; 2000) that phenomenal consciousness, being both complex and unified (so that my seeing the computer screen, hearing my tapping the keyboard, seeing the table on which it sits, and so on, are all part of a unified conscious field) must have an adaptive function. This function could be served only by simplifying what goes on in the brain to a ‘manageable’ level of awareness.

It is, however, far from clear why brain mechanisms should enter awareness at all. What purpose does consciousness serve? Most organic and all artefactual mechanisms proceed without being made aware of themselves. Granted that the clever things that go on in computers are, for we who use them, handily reduced to icons, just as Dennett notes – but that reduction is not for the benefit of the computer, but for the (conscious) user for whom the computer is simply a tool to support a certain range of activities. This is hardly analogous to our minds’ relationship to our brains.

The Experience of an Illusion

Even if its explanations of the nature and purpose of phenomenal consciousness were valid, illusionism would not make consciousness, and in particular phenomenal consciousness, any easier to fit into a physicalist world picture. To the contrary, it becomes a more awkward customer. If the experience of red is to be judged an illusion on the grounds that it is not like anything going on the brain, or indeed in the rest of the physical world, the illusion of an experience is even more difficult to accommodate than just an experience. After all, if the material world is incapable of generating phenomenal consciousness, it’s hardly going to be able to generate consciousness that misrepresents neural activity as phenomenal consciousness! If matter can’t generate experiences, it seems even less capable of creating the illusions of experiences, since misrepresentation presupposes presentation. Presentation is a relationship between an entity (an object, an event, or a process), and a subject conscious of that entity. The reflection of a cloud in a puddle becomes a representation only when it is observed by a phenomenally conscious subject. Similarly, all illusions presuppose experience.

Which brings us back to our starting point and the problem illusionism was supposed to solve: the challenge of seeing how phenomenal consciousness arises in a material world as seen through a physicalist lens. It seems no easier to accommodate an illusion, a misrepresentation of neural activity to an introspecting subject, than to accommodate phenomenal consciousness itself. Matter, taken by materialists to be the universal stuff of the world, having only those properties ascribed to it by physical science, would hardly be able to fabricate conscious subjects mistaking the nature of their own consciousness, never mind philosophers such as Keith Frankish arguing that phenomenal consciousness is an illusion. What illusionists mobilise to put phenomenal consciousness back into the materialist box requires invoking processes even more out of reach of physicalism. Thus, the claim by Frankish that “If phenomenal properties are… a sort of mental fiction, then we need no longer be embarrassed by them” could not be further from the truth. Mental fictions do not seem like the kinds of items brewed up by the physical world acting in accordance with the laws of nature identified by physicists. Illusionists, far from dealing with the embarrassment of phenomenal consciousness, have compounded the challenge it presents by requiring a slice of matter and energy to generate a fiction about itself.

Frankish concedes that “Illusionism replaces the hard problem with the illusion problem – the problem of explaining how the illusion of phenomenality arises and why it is so powerful.” What he does not recognise is that this second-order hard problem is harder than the first-order hard problem. Illusionism brings us no nearer to – and indeed, takes us further away from – reconciling the reality of consciousness (all of whose problems are hard) with a physicalist world picture. For instance, given that, for the illusionist, the illusion of phenomenal consciousness must be composed of more brain activity, we might ask how and why such brain activity might deceive itself as to its own nature. As for phenomenality, it might be powerful just because it is not an illusion.

Behind illusionism, and the wider project of defending physicalism, is a fundamental failure to see the mystery in the fact that the world is made explicit in consciousness, not the least in the phenomenal consciousness of entities called physicists. There seems to be nothing in the material world – or the world seen through the eyes of physics – that explains the experience that it exists. At the most basic level, this awareness is delivered in phenomenal experience, without which there would be no physical science, because no observations of data. Nor would there be any philosophers arguing about the implications of the physicalist world picture for our understanding of phenomenal consciousness, or, more importantly, of phenomenal consciousness for our understanding of the physical world. Saying phenomenal consciousness is an illusion is more, not less, embarrassing for those who want to defend physicalism.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2024

Raymond Tallis’s Prague 22: A Philosopher Takes a Tram Through a City will soon be published in conjunction with Philosophy Now.

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