Friday, September 14, 2018

Is consciousness an illusion?

I remember the first time I heard that Daniel Dennett said consciousness is an illusion. It was in the context of a criticism of Daniel Dennett, but I thought surely the person must be misrepresenting what Dennett was saying. Surely Dennett wasn't saying something as absurd as they were making out (and I don't remember who it was). I listened to a brief YouTube video where Dennett explained his view, and the most charitable spin I could put on it was that he wasn't denying that we experience consciousness; it's just that this impression we have that we are a unified self that has all of these conscious states is an illusion. In reality, our brain just produces a bundle of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, etc., then it tricks us into thinking there's a self behind it all who is experiencing it all. But then last year or the year before, I read a book by John Searle called The Mystery of Consciousness, and it confirmed that, holy cow, Dennett really was denying what we ordinarily think of as consciousness, i.e. first person subjective experience. There's an appendix at the end of the book that contains an exchange between Dennett and Searle.

Ordinarily, I think people take consciousness to be the having of first person subjective experience. So if anybody experiences thought, sensation, perception, desire, emotion, etc., then that person is conscious.

Of course there is a more colloquial way of defining it. Colloquially, it just means "awake" as opposed to "asleep," even though when people are asleep, they have dreams in which they have first person subjective experiences.

I sometimes wonder about people who are confused about what consciousness is. My inclination is to think that everybody knows what consciousness is because everybody is immediately aware of their own conscious states. So maybe the difficulty they're having is not in knowing what consciousness is but in articulating a definition for it. It would be hard to explain consciousness to a computer, for example, because computers aren't conscious. You'd have to be conscious to know what the other person was talking about. Explaining consciousness to something that wasn't conscious would be kind of like explaining colour to a blind person (except that at least the blind person would be capable of understanding in the first place). You have to experience it to understand it.

Other times I wonder, "What if there really are philosophical zombies???" I used to think about that all the time when I was a little kid. I didn't think of it in terms of "philosophical zombies" because I had never heard the term, but I did wonder if I was the only one who had a mind. I guess you could say I was toying with solipsism. This idea first occurred to me when I was seven or eight years old, and it persisted all the way through high school. I'm not saying I actually believed I was the only one who was conscious. I just toyed with the idea, wondering about it. Because if all we are is physical stuff, then it seems like we'd behave exactly the same even if our physical stuff did not give rise to minds. It would explain why people seem to struggle with the question of what consciousness is when it seemed perfectly obvious to me.

I also used to wonder if maybe everybody WAS conscious, but they were using a different language. It sounded like English to me, and it had meaning in English, and their behavior did seem to correlate with what the words meant in English, but I imagined that in their minds, it all meant something completely different, and it was just a coincidence that their behavior also corresponded with whatever that foreign meaning was. So maybe I could sit there and have a conversation with my brother, but to him the conversation was about something completely different than it was to me.

Let me come back to what I said a minute ago--that if all we are is physical stuff, it seems like we'd behave exactly the same even if our physical stuff did not give rise to minds. After reading how Searle treated Dennett, it made me think that what Dennett was doing is taking materialism (the view that all we are is physical stuff) to its logical conclusion. There's a method of arguing called reductio ad absurdum. That's where you assume a point of view for the sake of argument. Then you deduce conclusions from it. If the conclusions turn out to be absurd, then that casts doubt on the premises that lead to that conclusion. It's an effective way of arguing because if you can show somebody that their point of view logically entails absurdities, then you can get them to doubt their point of view.

But some people are immune to reductio ad absurdum arguments. Instead of conceding your point, they'll just embrace the absurdity. I was talking to a relative one time (whose identity I'll conceal), and he said something that implied that he was a hard empiricist. He said you couldn't know that anything exists unless you can experience it with your five senses. So I asked him if he thought his wife had a mind, and I explained that a mind consists of first person experience which you can't, even in principle, observe in a third person way. He can observe her behavior, but he can't observe her mind, so how does he know that there's any mind behind her behavior at all? I told him that his epistemology logically leads to solipsism since his own mind is the only mind he can be aware of. Instead of conceding my point, he basically said, "Okay, solipsism it is." Now that's just stubborn.

I suspect that may be what's going on with Daniel Dennett. Consciousness is a hard problem for materialism. In fact, philosophers call it THE hard problem. It's a hard problem for idealists and dualists, too, but not in the same way. I think Dennett recognizes that consciousness, as ordinarily conceived, does not fit into a materialist worldview, so instead of getting rid of his materialism, he's attempted to solve the hard problem of consciousness by getting rid of consciousness. He's embraced the absurdity that reductive materialism leads to.

His view is absurd because the fact that we are conscious is one of those few things we can know with absolute certainty. We know it because we have immediate access to that information. Whereas most things we know are known by inferring them from something else--that is, we know them indirectly--we know about our own conscious states immediately upon reflection. We don't infer this information from anything prior. We know it directly and infallibly.

And that includes metacognition. Not only do I know that I'm thinking, but I even know that I'm thinking about my own thoughts. I can't reflect on my own thoughts and not know that they're happening. They cannot be an illusion because that presupposes that they don't actually exist. But as long as I'm at least thinking that they exist, then my thoughts do exist. If I'm having an illusion of anything at all, including my own consciousness, then there has to be some first person subjective experience going on. That's true by the very meaning of "illusion." Illusion is a kind of perception, so illusion itself is a first person subjective experience.

Unless I've got some horribly massive misunderstanding about what Dennett is saying, his point of view is not only false, it's necessarily false. It's not even possible for it to be true. It's completely absurd. I know with certainty that it's false.

But I am still open to the idea that I've just got a misunderstanding of what his view is. In all fairness I haven't actually read any of his books. I've seen him talk on YouTube, I've talked to some of his devotees on the internet, and I've read his exchange with John Searle, but that's about it.


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