Monday, December 12, 2016

Is Consciousness an Illusion?

In the current issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Keith Frankish argues that consciousness is an illusion -- or at least that "phenomenal consciousness" is an illusion. It doesn't exist.

Now I think there are basically two different things that one could mean in saying "consciousness doesn't exist".

(A.) One is something that seems to be patently absurd and decisively refuted by every moment of lived experience: that there is no such thing as lived experience. If it sounds preposterous to deny that anyone ever has conscious experience, then you're probably understanding the claim correctly. It is a radically strange claim. Of course philosophers do sometimes defend radically strange, preposterous-sounding positions. Among them, this would be a doozy.

(B.) Alternatively, you might think that when a philosopher says that consciousness exists (or "phenomenal consciousness" or "lived, subjective experience" or whatever) she's usually not just saying the almost undeniably obvious thing. You might think that she's probably also regarding certain disputable properties as definitionally essential to consciousness. You might hear her as saying not only that there is lived experience in the almost undeniable sense but also that the target phenomenon is irreducible to the merely physical, or is infallibly knowable through introspection, or is constantly accompanied by a self-representational element, or something like that. Someone who hears the claim that "consciousness exists" in this stronger, more commissive sense might then deny that consciousness does exist, if they think that nothing exists that has those disputable properties. This might be an unintuitive claim, if it's intuitively plausible that consciousness does have those properties. But it's not a jaw dropper.

Admittedly, there has been some unclarity in how philosophers define "consciousness". It's not entirely clear on the face of it what Frankish means to deny the existence of in the article linked above. Is he going for the totally absurd sounding claim, or only the more moderate claim? (Or maybe something somehow in between or slightly to the side of either of these?)

In my view, the best and most helpful definitions of "consciousness" are the less commissive ones. The usual approach is to point to some examples of conscious experiences, while also mentioning some synonyms or evocative phrases. Examples include sensory experiences, dreams, vivid surges of emotion, and sentences spoken silently to oneself. Near synonyms or evocative phrases include "subjective quality", "stream of experience", "that in virtue of which it's like something to be a person". While you might quibble about any particular example or phrase, it is in this sense of "consciousness" that it seems to be undeniable or absurd to deny that consciousness exists. It is in this sense that the existence of consciousness is, as David Chalmers says, a "datum" that philosophers and psychologists need to accept.

Still, we might be dissatisfied with evocative phrases and pointing to examples. For one thing, such a definition doesn't seem very rigorous, compared to an analytic definition. For another thing, you can't do very much a priori with such a thin definition, if you want to build an argument from the existence of consciousness to some bold philosophical conclusion (like the incompleteness of physical science or the existence of an immaterial soul). So philosophers are understandably tempted to add more to the definition -- whatever further claims about consciousness seem plausible to them. But then, of course, they risk adding too much and losing the undeniability of the claim that consciousness exists.

When I read Frankish's article in preprint, I wasn't sure how radical a claim he meant to defend, in denying the existence of phenomenal consciousness. Was he going for the seemingly absurd claim? Or only for the possibly-unintuitive-but-much-less-radical claim?

So I wrote a commentary in which I tried to define "phenomenal consciousness" as innocently as possible, simply by appealing to what I hoped would be uncontroversial examples of it, while explicitly disavowing any definitional commitment to immateriality, introspective infallibility, irreducibility, etc. (final MS version). Did Frankish mean to deny the existence of phenomenal consciousness in that sense?

In one important respect, I should say, definition by example is necessarily substantive or commissive: Definition by example cannot succeed if the examples are a mere hodgepodge without any important commonalities. Even if there isn't a single unifying essence among the examples, there must at least be some sort of "family resemblance" that ordinary people can latch on to, more or less.

For instance, the following would fail as an attempted definition: By "blickets" I mean things like: this cup on my desk, my right shoe, the Eiffel tower, Mickey Mouse, and other things like those; but not this stapler on my desk, my left shoe, the Taj Mahal, Donald Duck, or other things like those. What property could the first group possibly possess, that the second group lacks, which ordinary people could latch onto by means of contemplating these examples? None, presumably (even if a clever philosopher or AI could find some such property). Defining "consciousness" by example requires there to be some shared property or family resemblance among the examples, which is not present in things we normally regard as "nonconscious" (early visual processing, memories stored but not presently considered, and growth hormone release). The putative examples cannot be a mere hodge-podge.

Definition by example can be silent about what descriptive features all these conscious experiences share, just as a definition by example of "furniture" or "games" might be silent about what ties those concepts together. Maybe all conscious experiences are in principle introspectively reportable, or nonphysical, or instantiated by 40 hertz neuronal oscillations. Grant first that consciousness exists. Argue about these other things later.

In his reply to my commentary, Frankish accepts the existence of "phenomenal consciousness" as I have defined it -- which is really (I think) more or less how it is already defined and ought to be defined in the recent Anglophone "phenomenal realist" tradition. (The "phenomenal" in "phenomenal consciousness", I think, serves as a usually unnecessary disambiguator, to prevent interpreting "consciousness" as some other less obvious but related thing like explicit self-consciousness or functional accessibility to cognition.) If so, then Frankish is saying something less radical than it might at first seem when he rejects the existence of "phenomenal consciousness".

So is consciousness an illusion? No, not if you define "consciousness" as you ought to.

Maybe my dispute with Frankish is mainly terminological. But it's a pretty important piece of terminology!

[image source, Pinna et al 2002, The Pinna Illusion]


François Kammerer said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for the nice post (which is a follow-up on a very nice exchange). I just want to make a remark (which, to a certain extent, is a follow-up on some remarks I already made on your last post on this subject). I feel that a lot of what you say relies on the idea according to which definitions by examples can be "totally silent" about the descriptive feature that all cases of the defined kind have to share. However, I think that I disagree with this thesis, and it seems to me that if we deny this thesis your own argument becomes less strong. I will try to give reasons to think that this thesis, according to which definitions by examples can be totally silent, is false (sorry in case I just misconstrued your view, for example because you do not really give such weight to this thesis).

Here is what I take to be your understanding of this thesis (quoting you):

"Definition by example can be silent about what descriptive features all these conscious experiences share, just as a definition by example of "furniture" or "games" might be silent about what ties those concepts together. Maybe all conscious experiences are in principle introspectively reportable, or nonphysical, or instantiated by 40 hertz neuronal oscillations. Grant first that consciousness exists. Argue about these other things later."

However, it seems to me that one could refuse this thesis and say the following: it is not true that definitions by examples of "furnitures" or "games" (to take your own examples) are silent about what ties those concepts together. In fact there is an implicit (and maybe vague) understanding of the kind of property who has to tie all the instances of, say, "games". And it could be shown by the following thought experiment: let us suppose that we came to learn that, for example, there is one property which is shared by all the games (both all the games we use as examples and all the games we would be glad to use as example), but that this property is a "weird property" (say, we discover that all the games have been invented on a Monday night, or that all the games are such that their names in French has a number of letter which happens to be a prime number). I take it to be obvious that we would not accept that the property "being a game" is in fact identical with one of these weird properties (and the same would go for any other case of definition by example).

François Kammerer said...

Part 2:
In fact, it seems very strongly to me that definitions by examples always rely on a vague and implicit but nevertheless very important (and substantive) grasp of the kind of property/aspect that the various things pointed out have in common. And, depending on the concept considered, this very grasp could make it so that some identifications of the property corresponding to the concept would be judged acceptable, and some will not.

So: maybe you were not in fact defending such a strong interpretation of the thesis of the "silent" character of definitions by examples. But if you were not, and if you accept what I said (about the fact that when we use definitions by examples we rely on a implicit but substantive grasp of what ties the various examples together), then the question becomes: what is exactly the implicit grasp that we have of "phenomenality" (when we define phenomenality by example), and is this implicit grasp compatible with the idea that phenomenality is, for example, the property of being a state consisting in a 40hz oscillation in the brain? (or any other physical properties)? But when we ask this question, it seems to me that we are back at the first step of the debate, and I feel that the use of a definition by examples did not really help us.

My point of view (and I think that this is also Keith Frankish's point of view, even though of course I can't be sure) is that when we introspectively think of consciousness, of "what it's like", etc., and use this introspective focus to define consciousness by examples, we usually do not implicitly simply focus on "whatever it is that causes my mental pointing", but we also have a kind of grasp of the property E that all cases of conscious experiences share. It is because we grasp these states as having E that we tend to think of consciousness as something particularly interesting, and particularly worthy of study.
I also think that the way in which we (implicitly) grasp E makes it so that the instantiation of E is (upon reflection) incompatible with physicalism. I also think that physicalism is true, so that the existence of states endowed with E is an illusion (my own view is that E is implicitly grasped in epistemological terms, cf. my own modest paper in the JCS issue).

Thanks again for the nice post and sorry for the long comment,

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that helpful comment, Francois! I'm not sure how our views map onto each other regarding the issue of "aspect" or "kind of property". I try to do without any explicit narrowing of the aspect or kind of property. But I do insist that the property be folk-psychologically obvious and the kind of thing that an ordinary person would easily latch on to. For games, "being invented on a Monday" wouldn't be such a property. Even if I *knew* all the examples shared that in common, that wouldn't be the sort of thing that a normal person would latch onto with the examples.

In my commentary, I use the example of teaching my daughter the meaning of "rectangle" by drawing examples of rectangles on an envelope. My daughter and I might know all the examples of rectangles are on the left side of the envelope (and all the non-rectangles on the right) but I know that my daughter won't latch onto the property "on the left side of the envelope" when I give her the examples. You might say that I know that she'll latch onto the shape aspect rather than the relative-position aspect that the examples share.

That opens up the possibility that I'm relying on an *implicit* aspect in this definition -- which I trust, know, or assume my audience and I will share? Maybe so. In a sense, all of these examples have something in common. They're conscious experiences. They share exactly the aspect that I mean to be pointing to. If that's all there is to it, I think there's no problem in my relying upon that aspect. It's exactly that aspect that I'm trying to bring to your attention. But if you now say that in relying upon the fact that what the examples have in common is that they are conscious experiences, I am committing to something incompatible with physicalism, I guess I don't see how that would follow. I suppose I'll need to read your contribution to the issue, which I confess I haven't yet done!

François Kammerer said...

Thanks for the answer Eric! Just a quick follow-up:

"That opens up the possibility that I'm relying on an *implicit* aspect in this definition -- which I trust, know, or assume my audience and I will share? Maybe so. In a sense, all of these examples have something in common. They're conscious experiences. They share exactly the aspect that I mean to be pointing to. If that's all there is to it, I think there's no problem in my relying upon that aspect. It's exactly that aspect that I'm trying to bring to your attention. But if you now say that in relying upon the fact that what the examples have in common is that they are conscious experiences, I am committing to something incompatible with physicalism, I guess I don't see how that would follow"

> Well of course from my point of view it follows only in a very indirect way. The same way in which there is probably a complex mathematical property shared by all rectangles (call this property P), so that it follows, from the implicit conception of rectangles that you and your daughter have to share in order for her to be able to grasp what you mean by "rectangles", that rectangles have P, even though it is perfectly possible to grasp this conception without admitting that rectangles must have P.
But I think that brings us back to a debate we had last time on the same issue (it was about your draft on Frankish's paper). I don't think my arguments are good enough to convince you now, if I have better arguments that come to my mind I will post them here! (and unfortunately I don't think that my own paper on JCS really tackles this particular issue)

Keith Frankish said...

Nice post, Eric. A quick response. How counterintuitive is my view? Pretty counterintuitive, I think. It's not far from your (B), but it involves the stronger claim that we routinely misconceptualize our conscious experiences (perhaps tacitly, as Francois says). We recognize, correctly, that the states you point to share some common feature, but we hold a seriously mistaken view about what this feature is. We take it to be a subjective, qualitative property, which we're directly aware of (diet qualia or qualia max). But -- I hold -- the common feature is in fact a property that we introspectively misrepresent as a subjective, qualitative one (zero qualia). This view ought to be counterintuitive, since it's the claim that we're all wrong about the character of our own experiences.

I'm happy with your definition, since it doesn't seem to rule out the possibility that the common feature is nothing more than zero qualia. (Unless a denial of that is built into the idea that the common feature is a 'folk-psychologically obvious' one?) However, I take it that phenomenal realists conceive of consciousness as something that, by definition, involves more than merely zero qualia. So that's the crux: Do you agree that there could be no more to consciousness than zero qualia?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks.

Francois: I remember finding your comments on the earlier version helpful, and I revised partly with them in mind. I'm a bit vague on the details, but I'm tempted to go back and check on how our exchange went last time (and especially whether I said something different)! I have to get my grades in today -- so maybe tomorrow.

Keith: Thanks for being willing to continue the discussion! I guess this is one thing I found unclear in how you phrase things: What is it to deny that our experiences have a "subjective" or "qualitative" aspect? I'm inclined to just repeat my strong version / weak version disambiguation move -- but I'm not sure if that's helpful.

"Directly aware" I feel like I can get a bit more of a handle on, and there my view is mixed: Introspection of current conscious experiences is a more convoluted, multi-faceted, and theory-laden process than we often give it credit for. But normally it also involves some "relatively direct sensitivity" to the target mental state, i.e. the conclusion is (if all goes well) substantially influenced via a short cognitive path. (I argue for this in "Introspection, What?" [2012].) If the denial of such a view of introspection is definitionally built into to "subjective, qualitative properties" then I'd deny that there are such things. But I don't think optimism about introspection *needs* to be built into the concept of subjectivity or qualia. Even people who are more optimistic about introspection or see a simpler mechanism for it ought, I think, make that a matter of a posteriori discovery rather than a definitional matter about the nature of consciousness/qualia/experience/subjectivity/whatever.

David Duffy said...

"...introspectively misrepresent...a common a subjective, qualitative one (zero qualia)": Is this a distinction without a difference, in that reports of some (at least) meta-cognitive properties correlate reliably with task performance? I am thinking of "feeling-of-knowing" as one such. Ditto the neuroimaging differences between lucid and ordinary dreaming, and how they fit in with other functional data about, for example, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and reported experiences in each state.

And there are high level, but not "meta", perceptual faculties (like numerosity) where there is information being extracted that will be attached by us introspectively via an act of perceptual learning/increased discrimination to particular qualities. JW Pennebaker's work on individual difference in the nature of physical symptoms reported by individuals is interesting eg for those who reliably reported when their blood pressure was elevated, the quality of the experiences seemed different from person to person. A few papers I have read in the area suggest aesthetic and cross-modal analogies are one way individuals can agree on quality with others that have experienced the same stimulus.

François said...

Thanks Eric for the discussion. I just wanted to make a few remarks:

1) One problem with the idea that our introspective grasp of phenomenality (which in turn allows for definitions by examples via introspective ostensions) is totally silent about the nature of phenomenality is that it does not explain how the explanatory gap (talked about by Joseph Levine and others) arises and persists. That is, it does not explain the persisting conclusion that something is left out everytime when try to identify phenomenality (as characterized by introspection) with such or such physical property. Of course you can say that our reluctance to identify phenomenality with a certain kind of physical property is not caused by the way in which introspection characterizes consciousness, but simply by contingent, supplementary beliefs that we happen to hold about consciousness. But this kind of views fails, in my view, to account for the robustness of the explanatory gap (for the fact, for example, that even convinced physicalists can be sensitive to the explantory gap, even though they should in theory have abandonned any beliefs about the non-physical character of experience). On the other hand, when we conjoin the thesis (1) according to which introspection substantively characterizes phenomenality, in a way that makes it impossible to identify with a physical process, with the thesis (2) according to which illusionism is true about phenomenality, we obtain a stable position which saves physicalism and yet accounts for the robustness of the gap.

François Kammerer said...

2) Just one other thing that I want to pinpoint. You seem to assume that, if we define phenomenality by examples, then the (strong) interpretation of the thesis according to which phenomenality is not real implies that our definition of phenomenality somewhat went wrong, and that our examples in fact failed to group together a coherent kind, but simply tied a "mere hodge podge". I don't know if you really make this assumption, but I feel like it plays a role (maybe a tacit role?) in your reasoning. However, it seems to me that this assumption is false. Here are reasons to think that it is false.

Let's define a category "A" with examples, such as follows: "A" groups objects such as the round square, the square triangle, the triangular hexagon, the heptagonal octogon, the round chiliogon, etc.
I am pretty sure you grasped this category via my examples (roughly this is the category of "impossible geometrical figures"). I am pretty sure I managed to define, through my examples, a meaningful category (and not a mere hodge-podge). However, the corresponding property ("being an impossible geometrical figures") is never instantiated in the real world (or in any possible world, for that matter).

But maybe you don't like this example, because (1) it features impossible objects, and (2) the definition by examples I used here does not rely on ostensions, but on descriptions of the various examples of impossible figures. So, here is another example:

Let's say that I am with my niece and that I show her pictures of various characters, trying to define a category "B" (which groups together these characters). I show her a picture of Santa Claus, then a picture of Saint-Nicolas, then a picture of the Befana ( I will probably manage to make her grasp a meaningful category, that we could paraphrase as such: "Characters endowed with magical powers who bring gifts to children during the winter". However, the property of being such a character is not instantiated, even though it may be instantiated in possible worlds, and even though my niece may fail to know this.

So, a definition by examples can succeed as a definition and yet fail to make us grasp an instantiated property. My view is that this is what happens when we define via introspective ostensions "phenomenality".

Of course, one may object that, in order for our ostensive definitions to be able to define a genuine-but-uninstantiated property, is has to proceed on the basis of representations (representations of Santa Claus, of Saint Nicolas, etc.). If we are just working with "direct" ostensions (making ostensions without the mediation of a representation), then of course every successfull definition will grasp an instantiated property. One may then object that, in the case of consciousness, we are not using representations to make ostensions, but we are using direct ostensions. Of course, this is one thing that the illusionist denies: the illusionist has to say that, when we grasp phenomenality introspectively, we are making our ostensions on the basis of (erroneous) introspective representations.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

David, thanks for that helpful comment. You write "some (at least) meta-cognitive properties correlate reliably with task performance? I am thinking of "feeling-of-knowing" as one such" and thus that Frankish's intended distinction might be a distinction without any real difference for the distinction to properly track.

I do think that it's possible (epistemically possible, given the current state of theorizing) that if we figured out the right theory of consciousness we would discover that the unifying core of consciousness is something like the process of, or disposition to, represent oneself as conscious -- which is close to what Frankish says, except with the "mis-" removed from the "represent" and the potentially confusing terms "subjective" and and "qualitative" replaced just with "conscious". If qualitative/subjective/conscious can be stripped of objectionable commitments, then the "mis-" is appropriately dropped. That would then transform the view into something like a higher-order representation view of consciousness.

So maybe there's a path from Frankish's view to a view of that sort.

Still, I wouldn't *define* consciousness in higher-order terms of that sort, even if I thought that that was probably the right theory in the end. I'd rather have that be a conclusion that arises from theorizing than something built in from the beginning of the definition.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Francois: Thanks for the very interesting continuing discussion!

On 1: I don't take it as part of the definitional task at hand to answer the question of why an impression of an explanatory gap persists, so I don't think it's a shortcoming of my approach that it doesn't handle that -- though of course it's also not a virtue that my approach has, either, that it handles that. I do think there are various ways of addressing the epistemic gap that are consistent with my approach. For example, there's the two modes of presentation idea and there are also nonmaterialist approaches (which I somewhat disprefer but don't rule out).

On 2: I think there are various ways in which definition by example can fail. I'm not committed to hodgepodge being the only failure mode. (I have a somewhat more liberal list in my commentary article, though I don't explore the possibilities.) So it is a substantive empirical commitment, my commitment to the idea that the definition by example succeeds. For this reason, I do see a wedge, in principle, for an eliminativist view to be defended, though I'm not optimistic and it's not the case that Frankish makes. Your examples are interesting but impossible objects seems disanalogous for the reason you cite (I don't see an argument that visual experiences are impossible). Similarly, winter toy-deliverers is a category of fictional objects and I'm not (yet?) seeing the argument that visual experiences are fictions -- as long as we keep the theoretical commitments of the term "experience" to a minimum! The latter case nicely illustrates, though, that a person might latch onto a decent category but then make incorrect assumptions about it (that the toy-deliverers actually exist as non-fictional people); and that probably happens with consciousness too (e.g., that it is immediately apprehended).

BTW, I read your commentary last night. I like your treatment of the idea of illusion there, but as I think you acknowledge your piece is more about undermining a potential problem with illusionism than about motivating the initial position, yes?

Keith Frankish said...

Thanks Eric. Well, of course, I’ve no brief for defending the coherence of the concept of phenomenality, but I think we do have a rough grasp of it. The concept is defined by its role in what I call the phenomenality language game. You know the moves. Phenomenality is what zombies lack, inverts differ in, and Mary doesn’t know about; it’s the private internal aspect of experience, which is invisible to neuroscience; it’s the immediate data of experience, over which we have a special epistemic authority; it’s the qualitative dimension of secondary properties -- the colours and sounds which science tells us aren’t really out there in the world; it’s what creates the hard problem.

I deny that phenomenality in this sense is real. Conscious experiences don’t possess properties that are phenomenal in any of the ways just mentioned, and it’s an illusion to think they do (an illusion that may be based on nonconceptual introspective representations of some kind). Experiences possess only quasi-phenomenal properties (zero qualia) -- properties that dispose us to judge that they have genuinely phenomenal properties.

So again, my question for you is whether your example-based definition of consciousness is compatible with that claim. I think it is -- and that a good definition of consciousness should be. But I think most people conceive of consciousness in a way that’s not compatible with it. Wittingly or not, they build in a much more substantial conception of what the common feature is. (See also my response to Kati Balog in my Reply.)

I should add, though, that I think it’s entirely natural that they people should conceive of consciousness in this richer way; introspection naturally generates the sense that our experiences have phenomenal properties. (That’s why I call it an illusion rather than a mistake.) My view ought to seem crazy, and if it doesn’t, then it’s wrong. (But please don’t quote that out of context!)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for continuing with this, Keith. I think I'm getting a better understanding of your view, though I'm not *quite* there yet, I suspect.

On the phenomenality language game: I think it's an important part of this language game that it's *disputable* whether zombies are possible, Mary is ignorant, etc. I think the game works best by defining phenomenality in a way that is neutral about such matters and then using argumentation to defend one conclusion or another about it. People aren't always clear about this, but I think that's the more helpful way to see the discourse.

On your second paragraph: If we accept a *strong* definition of phenomenal on which a property cannot, for example, be phenomenal unless it is immune to third person scientific explanation, I am officially neutral about whether conscious experiences have phenomenal properties. So my view is consistent with the denial of "phenomenal properties" in that sense. But I don't think it *quite* follows, even if we grant that there are no "phenomenal properties" in the strong sense, that experiences possess quasi-phenomenal properties which dispose us to judge that they have phenomenal properties, since I'm not sure we *are* disposed to judge that they do have phenomenal properties in that strong sense (well, some of us are, but maybe not enough of us?). (Maybe this is similar to one of Pete Mandik's concerns.) Also, I would be reluctant to stipulate as a definition that the target of consciousness studies should be "zero qualia" in that sense. Stipulate the target more neutrally, I'd suggest, then *argue* that it amounts to that kind of dispositional property, as the best interpretation of the pertinent empirical evidence.

Kaplan Family said...

I have a thought which is either a)a devastating criticism of this whole line of thought or b)an indication of a complete misunderstanding on my part. (B is certainly a strong possibility as I have not been involved in academic philosophy for several years.) The terms used to explain consciousness -- illusion and misrepresentation and mistaken view -- are all terms that seem to make sense only by preupposing consciousness. What would it mean for a non-conscious being -- a stream or a an explosion -- to be laboring under an illusion? If the famous facebook blue dress that looked white was floating in the interstellar void and no creature with eyes or a brain had ever evolved, it would not be an illusion would it? What is going on here? Explaining consciousness by evoking the category of illusion seems like a clear example of a vicious circle of explanation. Why isn't it considered as such in the philosophy of mind community?

François Kammerer said...

Thanks a lot for your answer Eric (and sorry for the long comments). Just to be clear: it is true that my point was not to argue for illusionism (whether in the comments on your blog, or in my paper). What I wanted to point out here in the blog is that definitions by examples are not as silent (about the kind thus defined) as you seemed to imply. Because of that, I think that your definition by examples of phenomenality relied on an implicit characterization of what phenomenality is. And I then wanted to point that it may be (even though I did not clearly argue for it) that this characterization is such that it allows you to indeed grasp a “genuine” kind (so that your examples are not a hodge podge), but which is also such that this kind happens to be an un-instantiated kind (so that when it seems to us that these things exist, we are subjected to an illusion) – the case of Santa Claus/Saint Nicolas/Befana shows that this is possible (even though I agree that there are disanalogies too between the case of phenomenality and the case of Xmas gifts-givers).
Now, if I had to argue positively, not directly for illusionism, but for the idea that your definition by examples of phenomenality in particular really is more commissive that what you claim, I would try to use your “wonderfulness” condition as a starting point. You say (rightly) that a good definition by examples of phenomenality should be such that we should be able to wonder about certain things: for example about the relation between phenomenality and the physical, or cognitive access. Now: are there things (or truths) about phenomenality which are such that we cannot wonder about them once we have defined phenomenality by examples: things such that, when we try to deny them, it seems to us that we are saying barely intelligible things? There are cases that are absolutely obvious: for example, we cannot deny that conscious experiences are concrete and temporally situated episodes (as opposed to abstract objects for example).
But are there other cases of things that we cannot wonder about (once we have defined phenomenality by examples on the basis of introspective ostensions), and which correspond to “problematic” commitments built-in our introspective grasp of phenomenality? I think that there are, and I think that they come from the fact that our introspective grasp of phenomenality gives us an implicit characterization of phenomenality in epistemological terms. For example, I think that we cannot deny (1): that for any of my current phenomenal experience, this experience has to be “present” in my mind in some way for it to be phenomenal (which is not yet to say that I am able to form infallible judgments about it). I also think that we cannot deny that (2) “if everything appears exactly to me as if I was in phenomenal pain, then I am in phenomenal pain”, or that (3) “if it does not at all appear to me, in any sense, that I am in phenomenal pain, then I am not in phenomenal pain”.
I know that you deny that we introspectively grasp consciousness by characterizing it as being as immediately apprehended, so I suppose that you will want to deny that we introspectively grasp it as satisfying 1, 2 and 3; but I must say that I find it extremely hard to accept! (especially for 1). Whenever I try to introspectively point out an example of a phenomenal state, I cannot help grasping this state as satisfying at least (1). Now, I know that you would say that we just have a very strong tendency to BELIEVE that phenomenality satisfies 1,2,3 (but that it is not built-in the concept). My only answer would be that this thesis would not account for the fact that I have such trouble simply conceiving of something that would be "this kind of thing" (mentally pointing on one of my experiences) and yet not be present to a mind, for example.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Terrific comments!

Comrade Kaplan: Yes, that's a legitimate and interesting point. Frankish talks about it a bit in the target article. He doesn't mean "illusion" in the *phenomenal* sense, obviously -- but then what does he mean by "illusion"? Actually, this is was Francois Kammerer, whose comment sits next to yours, picks up on in his own commentary on Frankish. The short version, I think, is that it must be something more cognitive. I'm inclined to think that "illusion" is a little bit of a misleading word for this reason.

Francois... in a moment.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Francois: I can accept that as a general set-up. It's not only that there's *something* in common among the examples, but something (as I emphasize) that ordinary people will latch on to, something that meets the "wonderfulness" condition, and yes probably which has some other features that I leave implicit (perhaps in virtue of which people latch on to it, since "latching" can't be magical).

On your 1, 2, and 3 specifically. 1, construed weakly enough, seems plausible -- though since we can wonder if ants are conscious we'd want to qualify it either by saying "present" is the kind of thing that is conceivable even in very simple minds or that "present" is conceptualized as being conditional upon more than just being conscious per se. I would resist your formulation of 2 and 3. In a 2008 article and in the corresponding chapter in my 2011 book I distinguish between epistemic and phenomenal senses of "appears" and "seems" and recommend that we avoid the words since they tend to be toxically ambiguous between those two senses. I would disambiguate as follows. If everything is such that I judge it to be the case (epistemic "appears") that I am in pain, then I am in pain (not necessarily true and even if intuitively plausible not an essential feature of our conceptualization of phenomenology). Alternatively if everything is such that I am phenomenally experiencing pain (phenomenal "appears") then I am in pain (true on standard understandings of pain). If we do that disambiguation, the problematic commitments seem to disappear.

François Kammerer said...

Hi Eric,
Thanks for your answer (I had read your 2008 paper a long time ago but I didn’t have in mind this distinction, though I remembered Jackson’s distinction concerning “looks” which seems quite close to yours). My answer would be: the phenomenal sense of “appear” (say, p-appear) is irreducibly “epistemic” in a way, even though it is not directly translatable into the officially epistemic sense of “appear” (say, e-appear). By that, I want to say that our implicit conception of a phenomenal experience (that we have to latch on to in order to “get” your definition by examples) is an implicit conception of something that is always “given” to a subject, “for” a subject, present to the mind of the subject, etc. – in a sense of “being present”, “being given”, which I think is A) substantive B) irreducibly epistemic (we don’t grasp the relation between a subject and her experiences as being simply a kind of “pure” and “blind” instantiation, to use Levine’s words, but as something which is such that there is necessarily some kind of cognitive presence of the experience for the subject; C) probably quite rough, intuitive, and not scientifically/functionally defined; D) Not reducible or identifiable with, for example, cognitive access (defined functionally) or e-appearance.
But my own view (that I won’t expound it in details as this will obviously take us too far away, and I’ve already spammed your post quite a lot!) is that this is enough to create some constraints on what phenomenality is (and what special epistemological properties it has), which makes it so that nothing physical can play the relevant role.

Kaplan family: I think it’s a very good objection (in fact, I think that it is the strongest intuitive objection to illusionism). Keith tries to address this issue in the target paper of the issue of JCS we are discussing (cf. section 3.2 and 3.3 of his “Illusionism as a theory of consciousness”, pp. 32-35). My own comment on the paper is also mostly devoted to tackling this objection (see here for a draft:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Francois: Yes my distinction is similar to Jackson's and inspired by his. I'm inclined to agree with weak versions of A-C at least in the human case (not sure about ants!). On D, though, I think it might or might not be in fact reducible, but it shouldn't be part of the very definition of the concept that it's reducible -- not in the strong sense that we ought to say "there's no such thing as phenomenal consciousness" if we became convinced of its reducibility.

Compare: If we discovered that cats were actually aliens come down to spy on us, we wouldn't say there are no cats. Even if a proper understanding of "cats" appeals to the evolutionary descent of mammals, as an empirical matter, that's something we can change our minds about without vanquishing cats from our ontology. Contrast "witches" in the medieval Christian sense. It was so essential to the concept that they had magical powers that proof that they did not would be properly regarded as proof that there were in fact never any witches.

François Kammerer said...

Eric: I see, thanks for your answer! When I think that our implicit grasp of phenomenality makes it so that pehnomenal consciousness is irreducible to anything functional, I mean two things: 1) It is not prima facie immediately (and without effort) reducible (in the sense that it meets your "wonderfulness" condition - on that point you would agree)); 2) It is not ultima facie reducible in the sense that I think that attentive reflection made on the basis of the correct empirical information will lead to the conclusion that phenomenal consciousness is not the same thing as certain materially-realized functional phenomenon (which is why I am an illusionist, as I am also a physicalist). On this point we disagree I think (so for me the case of consciousness is more like the case of witches than the case of cats).

Scott Bakker said...

Fantastic paper, Eric! So much so that my response here turned into a blog post in its own right, exploring the way the very obviousness of your appeal actually falls into the eliminativist wheelhouse...

Check it out at,

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Francois: Yes, I think we agree on your 1. On 2, it's not that I'm committed to its negation but that I'm uncommitted either way, and I think reasonably so -- and so perhaps that is the fundamental nature of our disagreement?

Scott: Very interesting post! I'll put a comment over there.

Neuroscientia said...

Very informative article...
A debt of gratitude is in order for your reply (I had perused your 2008 paper quite a while back yet I didn't have at the top of the priority list this qualification, however I recalled Jackson's refinement concerning "looks" which appears to be very near yours). My answer would be: the sensational feeling of "show up" (say, p-show up) is irreducibly "epistemic" as it were, despite the fact that it is not specifically translatable into the formally epistemic feeling of "show up" (say, e-show up). By that, I need to state that our understood origination of a wonderful affair (that we need to lock on to so as to "get" your definition by illustrations) is a certain origination of something that is constantly "given" to a subject, "for" a subject, present to the psyche of the subject, and so forth – it might be said of "being available", "being given", which I believe is A) substantive B) irreducibly epistemic (we don't get a handle on the connection between a subject and her encounters as being just a sort of "unadulterated" and "visually impaired" instantiation, to utilize Levine's words, yet as something which is to such an extent that there is essentially some sort of psychological nearness of the experience for the subject; C) most likely very unpleasant, natural, and not logically/practically characterized; D) Not reducible or identifiable with, for instance, intellectual get to (characterized practically) or e-appearance.

Be that as it may, my own view (that I won't explain it in points of interest as this will clearly take us too far away, and I've as of now spammed your post a considerable amount!) is this is sufficient to make a few requirements on what phenomenality is (and what extraordinary epistemological properties it has), which makes it so that nothing physical can assume the important part.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Neuorscientia: Thanks for clarifying that. I can agree that there's something plausible about thinking there is necessarily an epistemic dimension even to the phenomenal sense of "appears" -- and to the phenomenal in general. I'm not sure that I want to be committed to that myself, but I feel the pull of it. I worry about going too far with that, especially since it risks as you say requiring something nonphysical in the end. (One person's happy conclusion is another's terrible risk, I suppose!) Also in general (as in the 2008 paper) I think we tend to overestimate the specialness of our knowledge of our phenomenology....

Timothy Takemoto said...

Japanese Buddhism's "mu" means "not" but it is probably best translated as chaos, because it does and does not exist. If it shares no property nor family resemblance then perhaps it is best not described as existing also.

But perhaps consciousness generally first person perspective shares boundary conditions such as ellipticity, the tendency to have a brow and dual semi-transparent nose shadowing forming a "valley" in the centre, to have on one side a lozenge shaped torso and have radiating spidery arms and legs, and perhaps even to be haunted, or anthropomorphized usually by a 'devil' (Nishida) woman or mother (Freud, Derrida, Lacan) such as exemplified by prehistoric Venus figurines (McDermott, 1996).