Phenomenal consciousness is seen as one of the top unsolved problems in science. Nothing we can—or, arguably, even could—observe about the arrangement of atoms constituting the brain allows us to deduce what it feels like to smell an orange, fall in love, or have a belly ache. Remarkably, the intractability of the problem has led some to even claim that consciousness doesn’t exist at all: Daniel Dennett and his followers famously argue that it is an illusion, whereas neuroscientist Michael Graziano proclaims that “consciousness doesn’t happen. It is a mistaken construct.” Really?
The denial of phenomenal consciousness is called—depending on its particular formulation—‘eliminativism’ or ‘illusionism.’ Its sheer absurdity has recently been chronicled by Galen Strawson, David Bentley Hart and yours truly, so I won’t repeat that argumentation here. My interest now is different: I want to understand what makes the consciousness of an intelligent human being deny its own existence with a straight face. For I find this denial extremely puzzling for both philosophical and psychological reasons.
What kind of conscious inner dialogue do people engage in so as to convince themselves that they have no conscious inner dialogue?
Don’t get me wrong, the motivation behind the denial is obvious enough: it is to tackle a vexing problem by magically wishing it out of existence. As a matter of fact, the ‘whoa-factor’ of this magic gets eliminativists and illusionists a lot of media attention. But still, what kind of conscious inner dialogue do these people engage in so as to convince themselves that they have no conscious inner dialogue? Short of assuming that they are insane, fantastically stupid or dishonest—none of which is plausible—we have an authentic and rather baffling mystery in our hands.
The only way to go about elucidating the mystery is to investigate, with patience and an open mind, the arguments offered by eliminativists and illusionists. The cover story of last September’s issue of New Scientist, for instance, sensationally announced the discovery of the “True nature of consciousness: Solving the biggest mystery of your mind” based on an essay by Michael Graziano. In it, Graziano argues—predictably—that consciousness doesn’t actually exist.
He starts the essay by defining his usage of the term ‘consciousness’: “it isn’t just the stuff in your head. It is the subjective experience of some of that stuff” (emphasis added). Clearly, thus, Graziano is talking about phenomenal consciousness, not the other technical usages of the term. Phenomenal consciousness entails the subjective experiences that seem to accompany the material stuff going on in your head. So Graziano’s challenge is to persuade you that, despite all appearances to the contrary, those experiences don’t actually exist.
His argument rests on the idea that consciousness is adaptive: it is undoubtedly beneficial to us to recognize and understand ourselves as agents in our environment—i.e. to have a model of ourselves—if we are to survive. In this context, Graziano argues that consciousness is merely a model the brain constructs of itself, so it can “monitor and control itself”.
Consciousness seems immaterial—his argument goes—simply because, in order to focus attention on survival-relevant tasks, the model fails to incorporate superfluous details of brain anatomy and physiology. In Graziano’s words, “the brain describes a simplified version of itself, then reports this as a ghostly, non-physical essence.”
This is all very reasonable. The problem is that it has nothing to do with phenomenal consciousness. Graziano’s authoritative prose disguises a sleight of hand: he implicitly changes the meaning he attributes to the term ‘consciousness’ as he develops the argument. He starts by talking about subjective experience—i.e. phenomenal consciousness, which is what science can’t explain—just to end up explaining something else entirely: our ability to cognize ourselves as agents and metacognitively represent our own mental contents.
What it feels like to lift a heavy bag, have your tongue burned by hot tea or hit your head against a wall isn’t “ethereal” at all (try the wall if you doubt me).
If anything, Graziano’s argument presupposes phenomenal consciousness: once raw experience is assumed to be in place, then—and only then—does his argument help us understand how such experience can be configured so as to enable reflective introspection and a felt sense of self.
What Graziano describes as a “ghostly” or “ethereal essence”—and then proceeds to explain away in terms of brain function—is merely a colloquial understanding of consciousness, one that regards it as something akin to a ‘soul.’ This, of course, isn’t the technical issue in contention; it isn’t what is meant by phenomenal consciousness. What it feels like to lift a heavy bag, have your tongue burned by hot tea or hit your head against a wall isn’t “ethereal” at all (try the wall if you doubt me). There is remarkably little in Graziano’s argument to justify the rather ambitious title of his essay.
Also last year, Keith Frankish—an illusionist—published an essay on Aeon making the case that consciousness is, well, an illusion. Never mind the fact that illusions are experiential and therefore presuppose consciousness; the subtitle of his essay—“Phenomenal consciousness is a fiction written by our brains” (emphasis added)—gave me hope that he would face the core issue head-on, instead of throwing a smokescreen of conceptual obfuscation.
Disappointingly, however, Frankish already starts out by conflating science with the metaphysics of materialism and then weaving a blatantly circular argument:
“It is phenomenal consciousness that I believe is illusory. For science finds nothing qualitative in our brains, any more than in the world outside. The atoms in your brain aren’t coloured and they don’t compose a colourful inner image.”
The argument structure here is the following:
- Material things, in themselves, have no qualitative properties (like color, flavor, etc.), only our perceptions of them do;
- The brain is a material thing;
- From (1) and (2), the brain has no qualitative properties;
- Experience is reducible to the brain;
- From (3) and (4), experience cannot entail qualitative properties.
Ergo, phenomenal consciousness cannot exist; it must, instead, be an illusion—or so his argument goes.
Notice, however, that step (4) blatantly begs the question: it presupposes materialism, which is precisely the metaphysical point in contention. Ironically, what Frankish actually accomplishes is to highlight an implication of materialism that reduces it to absurdity.
His next point—the core of his case—doesn’t fare much better. He explains:
“it is useful to us to have an overview or ‘edited digest’ (Dennett’s phrase) of [our brain] processes—a sense of the overall shape of our complex, dynamic interaction with the world. When we speak of what our experiences are like, we are referring to this sense, this edited digest.”
His point is that, when we introspect, what we experience isn’t our brain processes as they are in themselves, but an inaccurate, distorted, “edited digest” thereof. This is the basis of Frankish's claim that experiences are illusions: they are misportrayals of what they represent, misrepresentations of material brain states. That’s why—the argument goes—a belly ache feels nothing like networks of firing neurons inside our head, even though the latter is supposedly what the ache actually is.
No amount of material indirection can make material states seem experiential, just as no number of extra speakers can make a stereo seem like a television: the two domains are just incommensurable.
Misportrayals as they may be, since Frankish's basic premise is that only material states exist, these 'edited digests' must themselves consist of material brain states as well—what else? And thus, infinite regress is upon us: since the brain states corresponding to the misportrayals feel nothing like networks of firing neurons, they must themselves be misrepresented by some meta-introspective system.
But alas, the resulting meta-misportrayals also necessarily consist of material brain states, so we need a meta-meta-introspective system that misportrays the misportrayals of the misportrayals, and so on. No amount of material indirection can make material states seem experiential, just as no number of extra speakers can make a stereo seem like a television: the two domains are just incommensurable. All Frankish accomplishes is to conceptually postpone the inevitable confrontation with the actual problem at hand.
To his credit, Frankish does explicitly address the obvious objection against illusionism: that the properties of experience—colour, flavour, etc.—cannot be illusions, for illusions themselves entail experiential properties. Here is the passage wherein he tries to tackle this objection (don’t worry if you find the prose difficult to understand; I simplify it below):
“Properties of experiences themselves cannot be illusory in the sense described, but they can be illusory in a very similar one. When illusionists say that phenomenal properties are illusory, they mean that we have introspective representations like those that we would have if our experiences had phenomenal properties. And we can have such representations even if our experiences don’t have phenomenal properties. Of course, this assumes that the representations themselves don’t have phenomenal properties. But, as I noted, representations needn’t possess the properties they represent.”
What he is saying is that, whether we have actual experiences—phenomenal properties—or not, everything can happen as if we had them. However, this succumbs to the exact same objection it was meant to rebut: for things to happen as if we had experiences, it must seem to us that we do have experiences, even if we don't.
But Good Lord, the ‘seeming’ is already an experience in and of itself. The introspective representations must themselves be experiential, otherwise there would be no ‘seeming’, no illusion. Frankish is tying himself up in tortuous conceptual knots in his attempt to abstract the concreteness of experience away.
Bewilderingly to me, he then makes a remarkable admission: “But how does a brain state represent a phenomenal property? This is a tough question.” Well, this is the only salient question, isn’t it? And Frankish’s entire case rests on the answer. He continues:
“I think the answer should focus on the state’s effects. A brain state represents a certain property if it causes thoughts and reactions that would be appropriate if the property were present.”
This blatantly begs the question again. Only under the assumptions of eliminativism or illusionism do effects sufficiently account for the question Frankish is leaving open. What defines experience is precisely that, regardless of its effects, there is something it is like to have it.
While acknowledging that he faces an explanatory challenge, Frankish suggests that all metaphysics face the same challenge:
“it is not only illusionists who must address this problem. The notion of mental representation is a central one in modern cognitive science, and explaining how the brain represents things is a task on which all sides are engaged.”
I regard this as outright misdirection. Yes, the mechanisms of mental representation in general aren’t fully understood, but that’s not the salient issue here. What is salient is this: only illusionists have to account for the experience of ‘seeming’—i.e. illusion—while denying experience to begin with. That’s the point, not mental representation in general.
The mind-bogglingly extraordinary claim that consciousness—the carrier of all our knowledge, the one thing we can be sure of—doesn’t exist requires rather extraordinary substantiation.
It is, of course, conceivable that I’ve failed to properly grasp what Frankish and Graziano are trying to say. But if someone with my background can’t understand the arguments they make in non-academic publications meant for the general public, I don’t think the burden is on me to make the next move in the debate.
The mind-bogglingly extraordinary claim that consciousness—the carrier of all our knowledge, the one thing we can be sure of—doesn’t exist requires rather extraordinary substantiation. Otherwise, it is legitimate to conclude that eliminativism and illusionism are precisely what they seem to be: nonsense.
If Frankish and Graziano’s arguments are based on question-begging, conceptual obfuscation and sleights of hand, where does this leave us regarding the mystery I originally set out to elucidate?
My present opinion is that illusionists and eliminativists are sincere, but also so fanatically committed to a particular metaphysics—materialism—that they inadvertently conjure up, and then tie themselves in, perplexing webs of conceptual indirection, ultimately deceiving themselves. In their inner dialogue, I suspect they implicitly replace the obvious meaning of the term ‘consciousness’ with one or another secret conceptual abstraction, and then strive towards proving that such abstraction doesn’t actually exist. Well, guess what? Of course it doesn’t!
They defer tackling the salient questions with layer upon layer of smoke and mirrors just to admit, at the very end, that the questions haven’t actually been addressed. However, by adding and then wrestling with all those artificial in-between layers, they get the impression that progress has been made, only one step being left at the end.
But in fact nothing has been accomplished, nothing at all. The ‘problems’ they solve aren’t real problems to begin with, just conjured-up artifacts of conceptual fog. There is nothing of any substance or relevance prior to the “tough question” of “how does a brain state represent a phenomenal property” if experience—as they allege—doesn’t exist.
Despite all this, here we are, discussing eliminativism and illusionism because—bewilderingly—these views have acquired a degree of academic respectability. Such is the state in which we find Western philosophy. What would Parmenides and Plato have thought of it? More gravely, what will future generations think?
The Institute of Art and Ideas offered the two individuals referenced in this article the opportunity to respond to Bernardo Kastrup's argument. Both were eager to do so. Michael Graziano's response can be found here, and Keith Frankish's will be published soon.
If you want to hear from leading thinkers like this debating renowned philosophers, cutting edge scientists, headline-making politicians, and beloved artists, come to HowTheLightGetsIn Hay 2020 for four days of debates and talks alongside music, comedy and parties.
Bernardo Kastrup will be appearing in The Limits of Material discussing consciousness and idealism.