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The Mysterious Reappearance of Consciousness

Eliminativism doesn't deny consciousness: it presupposes it

The mysterious reappearance of consciousness

I recently published an article on IAI News criticizing the bizarre notion—called ‘eliminativism’ or ‘illusionism’ in philosophy—that phenomenal consciousness, experience itself, with its felt qualities, doesn’t actually exist. This position is held, among others, by Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano, who has published a reply to my essay, to which this article is a response.

Let me start by saying that I appreciate Graziano’s willingness to engage; this is the only way that we will slowly inch our way towards clarity and—hopefully—some level of consensus regarding the nature of consciousness. It is also in the same spirit that I offer this rejoinder, for—as attentive readers will have noticed—Graziano’s reply doesn’t require a reaction: if anything, it unintentionally strengthens and confirms my original criticisms, making my own points better than I did.

Graziano begins by suggesting that the myriad philosophical positions being debated today about the nature of consciousness can be divided into only two camps: mysticism and materialism. As a philosopher of mind familiar with those debates, I couldn’t help but smile at the naivety of such a suggestion. For Graziano, if you are not a materialist then you must be a mystic.

Illusionists and eliminativists play a slippery game of words: they conveniently change the meaning they attribute to the word ‘consciousness’ depending on circumstances.

He goes on to suggest that my criticisms come from a ‘nonscientific, or often pseudoscientific, political side’ and reflect the ‘wooly thinking of philosophy that’s lost its integrity’. Let us ignore the strange allusion to politics in what is—or at least should be—an eminently technical debate; Graziano seems to conflate science and philosophy: either my argument is philosophical or (pseudo)scientific. I’m afraid it can’t be both.

Indeed, Graziano’s defining claim is overtly philosophical: “consciousness doesn’t happen. It’s a mistaken construct” (the closest scientific claim would be to say that certain contents of consciousness do not correspond to objective facts). Confusingly, however, he directly contradicts his own claim in his reply:
'Among the most common and puzzling reaction I get goes something like this: ‘Graziano says that consciousness does not exist; that we lack an inner dialogue; that getting stuck by a pin, or walking into a wall, is ethereal.’ None of these statements are true' (emphasis added)

Well, if it’s not true that “Graziano says that consciousness does not exist,” then what is it that he denies? How are we to reconcile this reply with his defining claim that “consciousness doesn’t happen”?
Illusionists and eliminativists play a slippery and deceptive game of words that philosopher Galen Strawson once called ‘looking-glassing’: they implicitly and conveniently change the meaning they attribute to the word ‘consciousness’ depending on circumstances.

When they make the fantastic, headline-grabbing claim to have circumvented the ‘hard problem of consciousness,’ they can only mean phenomenal consciousness by it—that is, felt experience, such as the felt pain of a pin prick. But when their argument is shown to actually presuppose felt experience—as opposed to denying it—they claim to mean something else by the word ‘consciousness.’ Graziano’s reply is loaded with looking-glassing: attempts to have the cake and eat it too.

So what exactly is the ‘consciousness’ that Graziano is now denying in his reply to me? He explains (I quote relatively extensively to avoid misrepresenting his case):
'The truth is that the chair you think is there is not exactly the same as the chair that is actually there ... Information about the chair enters your visual system; your brain builds a simplified, ‘quick-and-dirty’ version (a simulation or model as it’s sometimes called) [of it]; your cognition has access to that model; as a result, you can talk about the chair. … [But] the models are simplifications; they are not perfectly detailed or accurate. … You claim to have a conscious experience. You make that claim because you think it’s true – your higher cognition has hold of that information. … But that information is almost certainly not perfectly accurate. Therefore, we know – I would say with certainty – that whatever consciousness you actually have, it is different from the consciousness that you think you have.'

By acknowledging that our simplified representations indeed are experienced, is Graziano denying or in fact presupposing phenomenal consciousness?

In other words, our brain builds internal representations—“models”—of the world. What we actually experience in consciousness are these internal representations. But the representations are not identical with what is actually out there in the world. Instead, they are simplifications thereof. Therefore, what we experience in consciousness doesn’t correspond accurately with what is objectively out there.

This is all perfectly reasonable and fine. In fact, it is even trite. But now I ask you: does any of this deny consciousness? Do the inaccuracies of our internal representations deny the consciousness where these inaccuracies are experienced? By acknowledging that our simplified representations indeed are experienced, is Graziano denying or in fact presupposing phenomenal consciousness?

Graziano’s argument could certainly justify the following assertion: some, most, perhaps even all contents of consciousness—i.e. felt experiences—do not accurately represent objective facts. I have no problem accepting this, not least because it’s trivially true and trite. But the assertion certainly does not imply that consciousness itself ’doesn’t happen’. It is justifiable to say that some contents of consciousness are mistaken constructs in the sense of being simplified models of the world or even the self, but not that the felt experience of said mistaken constructs doesn’t happen. To me this is so obvious I blush to state it.

But Graziano then proceeds to construct a questionable logical bridge:
'Some of the attributes of consciousness that you claim to have, you probably don’t have. Some of the attributes of consciousness that you actually have, you probably don’t know that you have.'

To say that consciousness isn’t what we think it is neither entails nor implies that consciousness doesn’t exist.

It doesn’t follow from (a) the fact that some of our internal representations are inaccurate that (b) we mistake what consciousness itself is. The bridge between the two claims is a non sequitur. Nonetheless, I accept that—independently of Graziano’s argument—some of what we believe to experience isn’t actually experienced. For instance, most people think they experience their entire visual field in high resolution, while in fact this is the case for only a tiny area in the middle of the field. The illusion of high resolution arises from our continuous, subliminal scanning of the world by rapidly moving our eyes.

However, even the illusion presupposes consciousness: to think that we experience our entire visual field in high resolution is itself an experienced thought. Even if all our internal representations were totally wrong, they would still be experienced as such. After all, a completely illusory life is precisely a life that unfolds only in consciousness, not one that denies it. To say that consciousness isn’t what we think it is neither entails nor implies that consciousness doesn’t exist; on the contrary: it presupposes the consciousness that is deluded about what characteristics it attributes to itself. Is any of this hard to understand?

Interestingly, Graziano explicitly acknowledges, in his reply, the existence of felt experience, phenomenal consciousness:

'An internal dialogue? Sure, of course we all have it. A mind spinning with thoughts and sensory impressions? Yes. The pain of being stuck by a pin, happiness, memory, a moment of decisiveness, a moment of indecision? Yes, all of that is present, in some form. Consciousness? Yes, indeed.' (emphasis added)

He thus confirms precisely what I stated in my original criticism: his alleged refutation isn’t of consciousness in the phenomenal sense. What is it, then, that he denies? It is precisely what I originally claimed:

'When we introspect, when we dip into our intuitions and thinking, we report something totally different – not electrical impulses and synapses, not interacting chunks of information, but something amorphous and ghost-like. Philosophers have been trying to put words to that fuzzy extra essence for millennia, but none of the vocabulary really pins it down.' (emphasis added)

Hence, as I claimed in my original article, what Graziano denies is the “amorphous, ghost-like essence” we colloquially associate with the idea of a ‘soul,’ which has little to do with phenomenal consciousness; so much for a rebuttal of my original criticism, Graziano makes my case better than I did.

The ‘easy’ problems Graziano is trying to tackle have little to do with the challenge of making sense of phenomenal consciousness.

So why all the fuss? The problem is that (a) making the case that some of our internal representations are inaccurate, (b) claiming that we don’t actually have some of the experiences we consciously think we have, or (c) asserting that an ethereal, ghost-like sense of self is illusory are all relatively trivial arguments; none of them would make big headlines, for none address the hard problem of consciousness.

The ‘easy’ problems Graziano is trying to tackle have little to do with the challenge of making sense of phenomenal consciousness, so I can only hope that, at the end of the day, reason and clarity of thought will hold more sway than deceptive word games, conceptual confusion and hand-waving.

 

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.

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Edgar W 29 January 2020

Eliminative materialism is so obviously wrong that I find it shocking that any time needs to be spent explaining to people why it is untenable. When I first learned of eliminative materialism I thought it was a joke. These people can't seriously believe this nonsense, right? Surprisingly, I learned that there are people who actually do believe it!

Subjective experience simply cannot be reduced to the activities of non-conscious bits of matter, regardless of their complexity. More sensible materialists at least recognize the hard problem of consciousness and attempt to answer it with the magic of strong emergence, but that is no longer eliminative materialism, and it falls prey to Occam's Razor.

Phillip Weaver 25 January 2020

I don't understand why such an intelligently constructed reply is even required.
I'm a working class bloke of average or slightly above average intelligence without a University education who happens to have a lay interest in consciousness and even I can tell that consciousness is the one thing that is undeniable.
Certainly mine is anyway.
A discussion of the accuracy of representation is entirely separate to that of it's existence, indeed consciousness can't inaccurately represent anything without existing.
To continue this discussion further is like playing chess with a pidgeon- it will knock over the pieces, shit all over the board and strut around like it's won.

Michael Aparicio 25 January 2020

I went through graduate school taking for granted that introspection not only is reliable, but more reliable than empirical observations. Arguments that refer to such evidence were taken seriously, and the problems that arise from them defined my understanding of the mind. One couldn't have a complete account of the mind unless one accounted for the mind's qualitative nature. That is, I didn't just expect accounts to explain the causes of my introspective experience, but I assumed that the nature of the mind was as I experienced it through introspection.

At the time it seemed obvious and Eliminativists seemed as blind as that hypothetical Mary.

However, if introspective observations are't reliable, insisting that the nature of the mind must include accounts of Qualia, for example, begins to seem like someone looking at a stick in water and insisting that the nature of sticks is that they have a "bending quality." It's one thing to expect an account to explain why the stick appears bent, and problematic to assume that the stick really is bent.

Most of my life I didn't consider introspection problematic. I considered it reliable. I now doubt that reliability. I still expect research to explain why my introspective experiences are as I experience them. I still expect an account to explain the causes. But I nolonger assume that the nature of the mind is as I experience it introspectively.

Suddenly, I don't consider it implausible when I read that there is no single mental faculty called "memory," but multiple recall abilities. Suddenly I don't dismiss it as implausible when someone hypothesizes that mental states may be physical.

None of this is to claim we know enough to have a theory of the mind. We remain at that stage where we are considering hypotheses. But suddenly Eliminativist hypothesizes seem plausible; and when I read hypotheses relying on introspective observations I can't help but wonder if they're simply assuming that stick really is bent.

Daniel Sobrado 25 January 2020

You guys first agree on the definition of consciousness before arguing if it exists or not!

Jon Burchel 25 January 2020

Super condescending, and you don't understand Graziano's theory either. It succinctly account for all the features we describe as consciousness, and it doesn't take a "philosopher of mind" to understand it. Your "response to your response" shows your argument is bankrupt, and lazy...

David Irvine 24 January 2020

This article was just a bit of a rant really. One's perception of consciousness against another's. There was no message, no wisdom and certainly no philosophy. Absorbing the information that's in front of you, and being able to decipher a visual stimulus from it, does not define consciousness. A blind person still has the same conscious ability as a person who has a sight. Consciousness defines thought, the ability to question, create and propose a solution. This can be enhanced by an individual's ability to seek higher knowledge.