Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Inflate and Explode

I have a new paper in draft, "Inflate and Explode", which argues against eliminativism and "illusionism" about consciousness. It's so short (main text 1400 words) that I'll just share it as a blog post. It is, in fact, just a revised version of a blog post from 2018.


1. Introduction.

Here’s a way to deny the existence of things of Type X. Assume that things of Type X must have Property A, and then argue that nothing has Property A. Sometimes this is a good argumentative approach. Ghosts must be immaterial. Nothing is immaterial. Therefore, there are no ghosts.

Other times, the background assumption is false: Things of Type X in fact need not have Property A. The argument then fails: It illegitimately relies on an inflated or distorted conception of things of Type X. Real heroes must be ethically flawless. No one is ethically flawless. Therefore, there are no real heroes. Such arguments I pejoratively dub inflate-and-explode arguments. They explode not things of Type X but only an inflated conception of those things.

Eliminativism or “illusionism” about consciousness – recently defended by Jay Garfield (2015), Keith Frankish (2016a), and François Kammerer (2019) among others – generally relies on the inflate-and-explode argumentative strategy, as I will now explain.

2. Inflate-and-Explode Eliminativism.

Paul Feyerabend (1963) denies that mental processes exist. He does so on the grounds that “mental processes”, understood in the ordinary sense, are necessarily nonmaterial, and only material things exist. Patricia Churchland (1983) argues that the concept of consciousness may “fall apart” or be rendered obsolete, or at least require “transmutation”, because the idea of consciousness is deeply, perhaps inseparably, connected with false empirical views about the transparency of our mental lives and the centrality of linguistic expression. Daniel Dennett (1991) argues that “qualia” do not exist, on the grounds that qualia are supposed by their nature to be ineffable and irreducible to scientifically discoverable mental mechanisms, and there is no good reason to believe that there are such ineffable, irreducible mental entities. Garfield (2015) denies the existence of phenomenal consciousness on the broadly Buddhist grounds that there is no “subject” of experience of the sort required and that we lack the kind of infallibility that friends of phenomenal consciousness assume. Frankish (2016a) argues that phenomenal consciousness is an “illusion” because there are no phenomenal properties that are “private” in the requisite sense, or ineffable, or irreducible to physical or functional processes. Kammerer (2019) likewise appeals to the non-existence of states with the right kind of irreducibility and other special epistemic features.

The arguments share a common structure. The target concept – “consciousness”, “phenomenal consciousness”, “qualia”, “what it’s like” – is held to involve some dubious property, such as immateriality, infallibility, or irreducibility. The eliminativist argues plausibly that nothing possesses that dubious property. The conclusion is drawn: Consciousness, etc., does not exist. The arguments are sound only if nothing that lacks the dubious property satisfies the target concept.

3. How Consciousness Enthusiasts Invite Inflation.

Unfortunately, enthusiasts about consciousness tend to set themselves up for objections of this sort. Consciousness enthusiasts tend to want to do two things simultaneously: (1.) They want to use the word “consciousness” (or “phenomenology” or “qualia” or “what it’s like” or whatever) to refer to that undeniable stream of experience that we all have. (2.) In characterizing that stream of conscious experience, or for the sake of some other philosophical project, they make dubious assertions about its nature. They might claim that we know it infallibly well, or that it forms the basis of our understanding of the outside world, or that it’s irreducible to merely functional or physical processes, or....

If those additional claims were demonstrably correct, the double purpose would be approximately harmless. However, such claims are not demonstrably correct. In committing to both projects simultaneously, consciousness enthusiasts thereby invite critics to think that the dubious claims they advance in project (2) are essential to the existence of consciousness (“phenomenology”, “qualia”, “what it’s like”) in the intended sense. It’s like saying, in the same breath, “of course there are real heroes” (of which you are morally certain) and “real heroes are ethically flawless” (a theory you favor). A listener could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that they have refuted your first claim if they can show that no one is ethically flawless.

For instance, Thomas Nagel (1974) believes that there’s “something it’s like” to be you, and also that this something-it’s-like cannot be fully understood by objective sciences like physics. Earlier philosophers often committed to indubitability or substance dualism. John Searle (1992), Ned Block (1995/2007), and David Chalmers (1996) emphasize the importance of (phenomenal) consciousness and also commit to the inadequacy of functionalist explanations of it. The most famous recent articulators of the philosophical concept of phenomenal consciousness all commit to dubious claims about it – as philosophers will.

3. Resisting Inflation.

However – and this is the key – there is no consensus about those dubious claims among Anglophone philosophers of mind who use the terms “consciousness”, “phenomenal consciousness”, and “what it’s like”.[1] (“Qualia” is a harder case.) Because these terms are shared terms, they are not controlled by the minority who would attach dubious conditions to them. “Consciousness” is, and should be, understood in terms of shared community norms of use or meaning. The community norms do not essentially require indubitability, irreducibility, etc. Instead, “consciousness”, “phenomenal consciousness”, “what it’s like”, “stream of experience”, and (maybe) “qualia” all point to something that everyone (virtually everyone?) agrees exists: the types of things or events that you almost certainly think of when someone utters the phrase “conscious experiences”.

The best definitions of consciousness are definitions by example. At the core of, for instance, Searle’s (1991), Block’s (1995), Chalmers’s (1996), Charles Siewert’s (1998), and recently my own (Schwitzgebel 2016) definitions of (phenomenal) consciousness are examples of conscious experiences: visual and auditory experiences, emotions, acute pains, vivid imagery. If you agree that such things exist, and if you agree they have a certain obvious and important property in common that other things lack – it is, I think, a very obvious property! – then you agree that consciousness in the intended sense exists. Since definitions by example can seem to lack rigor (and are subject to certain other risks I discuss in Schwitzgebel 2016), it might be tempting to supplement minimalist definitions by example. It might be tempting, for instance, to suggest that the target phenomena in question all have an irreducible subjectivity (or whatever). Such supplementation is philosophically risky. If it’s manifestly true that all conscious experiences have an irreducible subjectivity (or whatever), then this can be a helpful specification. But such supplementary assertions risk confusing the reader and inflating the target if they are built into the definition rather than offered as separate, non-definitional theses.

We know some examples of consciousness. We know that these examples have an obvious and important property in common, which we dub (it only seems circular) “consciousness” or “phenomenality”. There is not much reasonable doubt about the existence of such examples or the fact that they have this property in common. Definition by example is a relatively safe and theoretically innocent way of characterizing consciousness; it blocks the inflate-and-explode maneuver; and it picks out the consensus target phenomenon that philosophers of mind are after when we talk about consciousness.[2]

I finish with a conjecture, which might not be true but which if true strengthens my argument: Non-eliminativist philosophers who commit to dubious claims about consciousness are in general much more deeply committed to the existence of consciousness than they are to the truth of those dubious claims. If required to abandon such dubious claims by force of argument, they would still accept the existence of consciousness. Their dubious claims aren’t ineliminably, foundationally important to their conception of consciousness. It’s not like the relation between magical powers and witches on some medieval European conceptions of witches, such that if magical powers were shown not to exist, the right conclusion would be that witches do not exist. It’s more like insisting that your heroes are still real heroes even if you are forced to abandon your theory of what makes someone a hero. It’s like insisting that red things are still red even after your favorite theory of color is destroyed. Of course there are still heroes and colors.

4. Conclusion.

Almost all philosophers of mind have a conception of consciousness which rides free of the dubious claims that some of us make about consciousness, claims which are reasonably criticized by the eliminativists. We can remain confident that consciousness in this core, shared sense exists, even if indubitability, irreducibility, subjectivity, ineffability, ineliminable mystery, and so forth prove to be mistakes or illusions. The eliminativist arguments explode only an inflated conception of the target.

Perhaps similar remarks apply to some of the other things philosophers have grumpily or gleefully attempted to vanquish – not only heroes and colors but knowledge, causation, altruism, freedom, race, objectivity, chance, mind-independent reality, moral facts, the self....[3]



[1] For some recent discussion, see Chalmers’s (2018) on “weak illusionism” and Type B materialism.

[2] I have suggested to Frankish (Schwitzgebel 2016) and Garfield (Schwitzgebel 2018) that the existence of phenomenal consciousness might be saved if it is defined in this relatively innocent way. Frankish accepts that such definition by example helpfully identifies a “neutral explanandum” that does exist, but he also asserts that the definition is “not substantive” “in the substantive sense created by the phenomenality language game” (2016b, p. 227). It remains unclear, however, why such a definition by example is not substantive. In contrast, Garfield replies by, as I see it, doubling down on the inflation move, denying the existence of “qualitative states” “that are the objects of immediate awareness, the foundation of our empirical knowledge… that we introspect, with qualitative properties that are the properties of those states and not of the objects we perceive” (2018, p. 584).

[3] For helpful discussion and comments, thanks to David Chalmers, Keith Frankish, Jay Garfield, Christopher Hitchcock, François Kammerer, Hans Ricke, Josh Weisberg, and commenters on my relevant posts at the Splintered Mind and other social media.



  • Block, Ned (1995/2007). On a confusion about a function of consciousness. In N. Block, Consciousness, function, and representation. MIT Press.
  • Chalmers, David J. (1996). The conscious mind. Oxford University Press.
  • Chalmers, David J. (2018). The meta-problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 25 (9-10), 6-61.
  • Churchland, Patricia Smith (1983). Consciousness: The transmutation of a concept. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 64, 80-95.
  • Dennett, Daniel C. (1991). Consciousness explained. Little, Brown, and Co.
  • Feyerabend, Paul K. (1963). Comment: Mental events and the brain. Journal of Philosophy, 60, 295-296.
  • Frankish, Keith (2016a). Illusionism as a theory of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 23 (11-12), 11-39.
  • Frankish, Keith (2016b). Not disillusioned: Reply to commentators. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 23 (11-12), 256-289.
  • Garfield, Jay (2015). Engaging Buddhism. Oxford University Press.
  • Garfield, Jay (2018). Engaging engagements with Engaging Buddhism. Sophia, 57, 581-590.
  • Nagel, Thomas (1974). What is it like to be a bat? Philosophical Review, 83, 435-450.
  • Kammerer, François (2019). The illusion of conscious experience. Synthese.
  • Schwitzgebel, Eric (2016). Phenomenal consciousness, defined and defended as innocently as I can manage. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 23 (11-12), 224-235.
  • Schwitzgebel, Eric (2018). Consciousness, idealism, and skepticism: Reflections on Jay Garfield’s Engaging Buddhism. Sophia, 57, 559-563.
  • Searle, John R. (1991). The rediscovery of the mind. MIT Press.
  • Siewert, Charles (1998). The significance of consciousness. Princeton University Press.
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    howard said...

    Why don't you say that my consciousness exists? Consciousness cannot exist as a thing in the world; therefore your consciousness does not exist, while mine does

    howard said...

    why can't we say that conscious thoughts gush out of the brain just as words gush out of the mouth, or light from the sun or gravity from matter, so that matter 'has' and 'causes' experience in some primal way?
    You could say that the brain converts raw sensations into experience

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    I think both your and my consciousness exist. No need to doubt that (at least to a credence of 99.8%). Whether consciousness is a "thing in the world" -- well, if raise some doubts about that, I wonder if you are packing something into the phrase "thing in the world" beyond the minimal commitments that I prefer to make, so we'd need to unpack.

    P.D. Magnus said...

    I started to write a comment, but it grew out of control so I made it a blog post. (I'm not sure whether it's gauche to link to my blog in the comments at your blog. Apologies if it is.)

    SelfAwarePatterns said...

    I'm always struck by how many philosophical debates amount to people talking past each other with different definitions. Consciousness in particular seem rife with them.

    Illusionists usually do end up clarifying that they're talking about the inflated versions of consciousness with all the dubious aspects. The problem is that, by that point, people have typically stopped listening.

    And of course, this is exacerbated by people who simply don't want to see that their preferred version of consciousness and the deflated version are disassociable.

    Personally, I think the solution is clarity, which almost always means using the word "consciousness" with qualification: sensory consciousness, affective consciousness, self consciousness, etc. When someone uses the c-word by itself, the usage almost always has a theoretical assertion embedded in it, intentional or otherwise.

    Howie said...

    So Eric, how about this- if we're not sure what it is, maybe we can't be too sure that it is, or that it's the same in all cases- I think Wittgenstein said something about my beetle versus your beetle- if we experience the world in radically different ways, like cultures, than maybe what it is like for each of us is so radically different that it is risky to say we're conscious in the same way

    PhilosopherPerson said...

    Do you think that even the most minimally possible remarks about consciousness like "these examples all share this property" could be questioned? Perhaps it's not clear that these sorts of examples are of things that possess properties at all for example.

    Also, do you think there might be an implicit move going on in this debate such that the eliminativist is committed to the idea that if you can't give a characterization of the nature of something, it isn't real? Or isn't a candidate for being real? Or something like that? Like a sort of general suspicion about spooky metaphysical entities with inherent ineffable properties, a kind of borderline positivist holdover hardline approach - if you can't tell me what it's like, it ain't real.

    Arnold said... even "the self" (Eric's final thought this post), also, an example of inflation towards explosion...

    But "myself" an uninflatable example, enough, towards sharing philosophy on our planet...

    Stephen Wysong said...

    SelfAware ... your suggestion about 'clarity': "which almost always means using the word "consciousness" with qualification: sensory consciousness, affective consciousness, self consciousness, etc." instead appears to support the existence of several different kinds of consciousness which is confusing and untrue rather than clarifying.

    Sensory, affective, etc. are distinguishable types of consciousness content, all integrated into a unified streaming experience termed consciousness.

    SelfAwarePatterns said...

    I didn't mean to imply with those terms that they aren't part of one unifying consciousness. But you're right, if I talked about it within the context of one system, the onus would be on me to make that clear so people didn't think I was talking about multiple consciousnesses.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

    PD: Very interesting! I've posted a reply on your blog.

    SelfAware: I'm not sure I agree. In this case, I do think there is some talking past each other. Stephen's point in response I endorse. But setting that aside to focus on divisions like "access" vs "phenomenal", also I think that the proliferation of "types" of consciousness may invite confusion rather than forestalling it. The definition of the type can lead people to wonder whether or not the target is the obvious thing we all know we have, rather than some more obscure and debatable thing.

    Howie: I know you have a beetle -- though how similar it is to mine is an open question. Of course, we could be radical skeptics about other minds, but that's a different issue.

    PPerson: I do think it's possible to question whether there is a shared property among the examples (that nonconscious mental states lack). Eliminativism along those lines wouldn't be inflate-and-explode. On the quasi-positivist concern: There are plenty of cases of things -- knowledge, furniture, games, love -- where we can point out examples, say *something* about those example, but be more committed to their existence than we are to any analysis of them or any assertion about their essential properties. Consciousness is like that, on my view.

    Arnold said...

    At Magnus blog, is "...committed to 'there being" such a thing as consciousness...", an example of inflation-explosion...

    ...That..."uninflated consciousness"(self) might survive in "shared philosophy", not towards "being there", but towards "being here"...

    Philosopher Eric said...

    I’ve always liked your “inflate and explode” criticism of how philosophers sometimes become more distinguished. This shortened version of it could only help. It goes along with my belief that the field of philosophy needs to be split up into a standard form which is thus concerned about cultural and artistic matters to potentially appreciate eternally (or remains gratuitous rather than practical), as well as a form which is formally concerned only about developing generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology for effective general use.

    It seems to me that by calling out some of the shifty practices which tend to be rewarded in the field, your observations might help a group of philosophers take the second path. If even a small group were to become distinguished through a set of principles that they accept, this community might grow to eventually better found the institution of science itself. Without such philosophical principles, it seems to me that our mental and behavioral sciences suffer horribly today.

    Beyond your “inflate and explode” criticism, what principle might such a group use to set the topic of mind on firmer ground? Consider my single principle of axiology:

    It’s possible for a machine that is not conscious (like my brain), to produce a punishment/ reward dynamic from which to motivate the function of a machine that is conscious (like “me”).

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Philosopher Eric: I'm glad you find the criticisms helpful! I'm not sure about dividing philosophers into those two groups, though. I'd rather see more cross-disciplinary interaction and more mixture of humanities and the arts with formal researches.

    I'm not so sure about the core principle you suggest. In general, my impulses go against core principles instead toward skepticism, pragmatism, and contextualism!

    Bruce said...

    The good is what was or will be—it is what never is. Parasite of memory or of anticipation, past or possible, it cannot be actual—present—nor subsist in and of itself: as such, consciousness knows it not, and apprehends it only when it disappears. (E.M. Cioran)