Grokking illusionism

A number of people I know are illusionists about consciousness: that is, they think that the way consciousness seems to us involves some fundamental misrepresentation. On an extreme version of this view (which Frankish (2016) calls “strong illusionism”), phenomenal consciousness simply does not exist; it only seems to exist (I’ll say more about what I mean by phenomenal consciousness in a moment). I’m especially interested in this version.

For a long time, though, I’ve found it hard to really grok what it would be for strong illusionism to be true. I can repeat the words illusionists say; but I haven’t had a clear sense of the reality envisioned, such that I could really look at the world through the illusionist’s eyes. What’s more, I’ve suspected that some sort of barrier in this respect is crucial to the resistance that I (and I expect many others) feel to the view. Successfully imagining illusionism being true, I think, may be halfway to believing it.

(As a sidenote: I think this dynamic may be common. Actually looking at the world the way someone you disagree with looks at it is often much more difficult than being able to pass their “intellectual turing test” — e.g., to present their position in terms that they would endorse. As ever, words are easy; seeing the world in new ways is hard. And once you have seen the world in a new way, the possibility that the world actually is that way is much easier to take seriously.)

The aim of this post is to grok illusionism more fully. Let’s start with a few clarifications.

The philosophical debate about consciousness centers on “phenomenal consciousness,” which is generally thought of as the thing we ascribe to a system when we say that there is “something it’s like” to be that system, or when we ascribe to that system a first-person perspective or subjective experience. And experiences themselves — the taste of wine, the smell of leaves, the color of an afterimage in your visual field — are thought of as “phenomenally conscious” when there’s something it’s like to have them, and the “phenomenal properties” of experiences determine (consist in?) what it’s like to have them.

Phenomenal consciousness is often contrasted with “access consciousness,” understood as a property of the mental states that a subject can do certain things with (e.g., “access”) — in particular, notice them, report on them, reason about them, etc. 

People have various intuitions about phenomenal consciousness often thought difficult to validate using a standard physicalist conception of the universe. Chalmers (2018) offers a helpful taxonomy:

    • Explanatory intuitions: these are intuitions to the effect that certain familiar modes of physical and functional explanation are unable in principle to explain phenomenal consciousness.
    • Metaphysical intuitions: intuitions about the metaphysical status of phenomenal consciousness. For example, intuitions that phenomenal consciousness is not a physical phenomenon, or that it is in some sense simple. Chalmers doesn’t say so, but I’ll assume that intuitions to the effect that consciousness is e.g. unified (different conscious experiences arise in a single unified mental “space”) or binary (you have it or you don’t) would also fall under this bucket.
    • Knowledge intuitions: Intuitions about the type of knowledge it’s possible to have about phenomenal consciousness — for example, intuitions to the effect that a neuroscientist raised in a black and white room and who knows all the physical facts about color vision learns something new when she sees red for the first time; and intuitions to the effect that it is difficult or impossible to know, from a third-person perspective, whether a given system is phenomenally conscious, or what its phenomenal consciousness is like, even granted arbitrary amounts of physical knowledge and understanding.
    • Modal intuitions: These are intuitions about what sorts of scenarios involving phenomenal consciousness are possible. For example, you might think it possible that despite their behavior, other people are not conscious (even though you are); or that what other people call “blue” actually looks to them like red looks to you (and vice versa); or that there could be a physical duplicate of our world consisting entirely of creatures that don’t have phenomenal consciousness (“phenomenal zombies”).

Some theorists argue, from intuitions of this kind and other considerations, that a standard physicalist conception of the universe requires revision. Others resist such a revision.

Illusionists are definitely in the latter category. Where illusionism differs from other physicalist theories, however, is somewhat harder to pin down. Broadly speaking, illusionism is more willing to claim that the way phenomenal consciousness seems to us involves some fundamental aspect of misrepresentation, whereas other theories hold out more hope that various ways things seem to us might come out true. But because illusionism and other physicalists theories share a fundamental physicalist metaphysic, however, the distinction between them comes down primarily to a debate, not about how things fundamentally are, but about how they seem (or, alternatively, which properties something must have, in order to count as phenomenal consciousness, vs. something else). In this respect, the distinction is much less interesting than the distinction between physicalist and non-physicalists theories more broadly.

This is a familiar dialectic in philosophical debates about whether some domain X can be reduced to Y (meta-ethics is a salient comparison to me). The anti-reductionist (A) will argue that our core intuitions/concepts/practices related to X make clear that it cannot be reduced to Y, and that since X must exist (as we intuitively think it does), we should expand our metaphysics to include more than Y. The reductionist (R) will argue that X can in fact be reduced to Y, and that this is compatible with our intuitions/concepts/everyday practices with respect to X, and hence that X exists but it’s nothing over and above Y. The nihilist (N), by contrast, agrees with A that it follows from our intuitions/concepts/practices related to X that it cannot be reduced to Y, but agrees with D that there is in fact nothing over and above Y, and so concludes that there is no X, and that our intuitions/concepts/practices related to X are correspondingly misguided. Here, the disagreement between A vs. R/N is about whether more than Y exists; the disagreement between R vs. A/N is about whether a world of only Y “counts” as a world with X. This latter often begins to seem a matter of terminology; the substantive questions have already been settled.

My sense is that the distinction between what Frankish calls “weak” and “strong” illusionism may turn out to be largely terminological as well. Frankish characterizes weak illusionism as admitting that phenomenal consciousness exists, but claiming that we misrepresent it as having certain metaphysically suspicious features — such as being ineffable, intrinsic, essentially private, or infallibly-known — that it doesn’t possess. Strong illusionism, by contrast, denies that phenomenal consciousness exists altogether. But it’s not clear to me what’s at stake in the difference between admitting phenomenal consciousness exists, but does not have X, Y, and Z features, vs. saying that it doesn’t exist at all, unless we can say more about the features that, according to weak illusionists, it does have. Frankish, here, mostly says that weak illusionists still allow that experiences have properties that are “genuinely qualitative” and “feely,” and in that sense phenomenal; claims which strong illusionists deny. But it’s very unclear to me, absent further positive characterization, what “qualitativeness” and “feely-ness” amount to (I think Frankish talks about this “Quining Diet Qualia,” which I haven’t read).

Despite the purported strength of his illusionism, though, Frankish himself does a few terminological dances to avoid baldly endorsing claims like “there’s nothing it’s like to be you,” and “you are a phenomenal zombie.” He is committed to the non-existence of phenomenal consciousness, but he says that we need not construe talk about “what it’s like” or of “phenomenal zombies” as essentially about phenomenal consciousness. For example, we might think of there being “something it’s like” to have a certain experience if that experience is represented introspectively in some way; and we might think of zombies as essentially lacking in this type of introspective access to their mental states — what Frankish calls an “inner life.” We aren’t zombies like that, says Frankish.

I think Frankish is squirming a bit here, and that he should bite the relevant bullets more forthrightly (though to his credit, he’s still reasonably up front). No one ever thought that phenomenal zombies lacked introspective access to their own mental states, since they were by hypothesis functionally identical to humans; and the central function of “what it’s like” talk in the discourse about consciousness has been to point to/characterize phenomenal consciousness.

Let’s consider, then, the more forthright version of strong illusionism, which just states directly that phenomenal consciousness does not exist; there’s nothing it’s like to be you, or a bat, or your partner; there’s never been anything it’s like to be anyone; there’s nothing it’s like to see green, or to feel pain, or to fall in love. You used to think a zombie world was merely possible; actually, it’s actual. The lights have never been on. No one has ever been home.

Can you conceive of this? Can you take seriously the possibility that this might, actually, be true?

In attempting this, the shift I’ve found most helpful is actively and deliberately moving from conceiving of subjective experience as a thing — a “space” or “experiential array” that you have some sort of “direct acquaintance” relationship with — to conceiving of it as the content of a story, as a way things are represented to be. Less like the canvas and paint of a painting, and the more like what the painting is supposed to be of; less like a newspaper, and more like the news. And the news, as we all know, might be oversimplified, partly false, or entirely fake.

Suppose, for example, that after fixating your vision on a black, green, and yellow image of an American flag, you are left with an “after-image” of a red stripe when the flag stimulus is removed (this is a favorite example of Daniel Dennett’s). It’s tempting to think that there is something that has the property of phenomenal redness — that is, an appearance of a red stripe, where that appearance is itself red, in your “internal space” or “experiential array” — and that it is this something that you direct your attention to in noticing the after-image. On the view illusionists like Dennett and Frankish are encouraging, though, what’s happening is that according to the story your brain is telling, there is a stripe with a certain type of property. That’s the sense in which it seems to you like there’s a red stripe; that’s all that the appearance of the red stripe amounts to, and this does not require an actual red stripe made out of mental stuff, painted in mental paint (Dennett calls it “figment”) in your internal world.

Here’s Frankish’s (2019) more comprehensive version of this picture (it’s not the only version available, but my impression is that many illusionist accounts proceed on similar lines). Your brain engages in processes associated, for Frankish, with “access consciousness” — e.g., acquiring information and synthesizing information about the environment, and then “broadcasting” that information to the brain as a whole, such that it can enter into further processes like reasoning and decision-making. Beyond this, though, it also uses introspective mechanisms to track the processes involved in access consciousness and represent them using a simplified model — a model which can then itself feed into other cognitive processes like decision-making, memory storage, and so on. Importantly, though, this simplified model involves representing some things (maybe mental states, maybe objects in the world) as having properties they don’t have — specifically, phenomenal properties. And it is this false representation that gives rise to problematic intuitions like the ones described above.

Frankish is openly hazy about exactly what it is to represent a property as phenomenal, and about the specific mechanisms via which such representations give rise to the problematic intuitions in question — this, he thinks, is a matter for further investigation. But the basic outlines of the eventual story are, for him, relatively clear, and the project of filling them out is much more promising, he thinks, than the project of trying to validate the intuitions in question, whether via physicalist or non-physicalists means.

Because this account is more of a promissory note than a developed theory, it doesn’t provide a ton of content to aid in constructing an illusionist model of how your mind works. Still, I think, shifting to thinking of your subjective experience as the content of a story — not the Cartesian theatre; but the plot of the film — seems to me a basic and instructive first step. 

(Note that we can make the same move, not just about phenomenally conscious experiences, but about the self that experiences them. The basic picture is: there is a physical machine controlled by a brain, it contains representations that purport to describe a self, a set of mental states, and an external world, all with various properties; according to these representations, the self is situated at the center of a unified internal arena or space in which sights, sounds, etc with phenomenal properties appear and disappear. To the extent that we end up thinking of the properties of these mental states as illusory, we may end up thinking of properties of the “self” that is represented as experiencing them as illusory as well.)

When I try to see the world like this, I find myself shifting from an implicit frame in which I am the “consumer” of my brain’s story about the world — a consumer who uses that story as a map — to one in which I am fully engrossed in that story, fully in the world that the story portrays. Shakespeare writes: “Think when we talk of horses, that you see them; printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth.” On illusionism, I continue to take this advice, applied to qualia, very much to heart: “Think, when your brain talks of phenomenal redness, that you see it.” Oh, but I do. I look at my desktop background, and there is the phenomenal redness, shining vividly. And indeed it is, says illusionism, in the fictional world your brain is representing. Quite a fiction, I find myself thinking; very engrossing; feels so real; feels like I’m there.

Indeed, a part of me is tempted to say that this fictional world, in which things have phenomenal redness, is my world, and that I am more deeply identified with the “self” in this world than with the organism and brain that houses the mental states representing it. Perhaps, in this sense, “I” will end up as fictional/illusory as the phenomenal redness I take myself to be perceiving. I’m tempted towards this view in part because the fictional world is where, as it were, the phenomenal red lives; in this sense, the fictional self in the fictional world is right about its perceiving the (fictional) phenomenal red, though wrong to treat the fictional world as real. And being right about something that seems as obvious as the phenomenal red seems like a real benefit.

But a part of me pulls the other direction. On this view, I’m the organism/brain, using a flawed map to navigate a real territory. Phenomenal properties, it turns out, are a flaw in the map — a particularly compelling and unusual flaw, but familiar in a broader sense, and not, perhaps, particularly harmful outside of philosophy seminars (though my best guess is actually that accepting illusionism would have very revisionary implications in a variety of domains, especially ethics). This, I think, is where most illusionists end up; and it seems the more sensible route. 

5 thoughts on “Grokking illusionism”

  1. Basically agree that illusionism is totally plausible and coherent. I think I disagree with Frankish in his claim consciousness is “anomalous” and so we should have a very low prior on its existence. It is *different* than phenomena that science can study, but it doesn’t *conflict* with any well-established theory in the way that the word “anomaly” seems to imply.

  2. One thing that pushes me toward the illusionist way of talking is a kind of frustration with the way other physicalists talk about consciousness. Sometimes you’ll hear consciousness compared to other physical phenomena like water and life. Science explained (or at least is in the process of explaining) those things in physical terms, likewise, we should expect future science to give us an explanation of consciousness.

    This seems wrongheaded to me. There is very little consensus among physicalists about which systems have phenomenal consciousness. It’s not just disagreement about which animals are conscious – even questions like whether electrons are conscious seem up for debate. This is a really really weird situation, and it’s very unclear to me how doing more science could resolve it.

    I think Eric Schwitzgebel does a good job giving a fairly lightweight definition of phenomenal consciousness, see his “Phenomenal Consciousness Defined and Defended as Best As I Can Manage”. In short, it goes like this: “Phenomenal consciousness is the most folk psychologically obvious thing or feature that the positive examples possess and that the negative examples lack [he gives some positive and negative examples of putatively conscious states] and which preserves our ability to wonder, at least temporarily, about antecedently unclear issues such as consciousness without attention and consciousness in simpler animals”

    Frustratingly, Frankish responded saying that he grants that we are conscious in Schwitzgebel’s sense. I think an illusionist probably ought to deny that there is any property that fits his description.

  3. For me, the fact that some people doubt the existence of phenomenal consciousness is only half the mystery. It seems ludicrous, but there is at least something I respect in the ability of a diehard philosophical skeptic to doubt even the existence of the thing I am most certain of.

    So then the real bamboozler is that said people still believe in the physical world.

    Why is it that whenever people take Occam’s razor to dualism it’s almost always the mind that has to go? Materialism dates back thousands of years, so it can’t just be down to the recent Western preference for more “scientific”/”objective” explanations over “religious”/”subjective” ones. And it doesn’t seem like the result of just some basic “amateur” philosophy, because it’s not like your Average Joe finds the concept of an afterlife so much more tricky than the concept of a robot. If anyone knows of any arguments for why the evidence for the existence of a physical world is stronger than the evidence for the existence of qualia, I’d be interested to hear them.

    Anyway I admire your attempt to see the world through the illusionist’s eyes. I can’t think of a greater empathic challenge in my own case!

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