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.
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