Monday, April 24, 2023

"There Are No Chairs" Says the Illusionist, Sitting in One

Recent "illusionists", such as Keith Frankish and Francois Kammerer, deny that consciousness exists.  If that sounds so obviously false that you suspect they must mean something peculiar by "consciousness", you're right!  But they say they don't mean anything peculiar by "consciousness" -- that they're just using it in the ordinary sense, or -- rather differently -- at least the sense that most 21st century philosophers mean when they use the word "consciousness".

Frankish and I have been back and forth about this quite a bit.  For a few years, I seem to have had him convinced that there's a sense of "consciousness" that is relatively neutral among philosophical theories, which he shouldn't deny the existence of.  But recently he appears to have changed his mind about this, and this past weekend, he posted a fictional dialogue illustrating his continuing disagreement.

To illustrate how illusionists tend to come across to those of us who aren't illusionists, I've constructed this fictional dialogue with an illusionist about chairs.

Eric and the Illusionist have scheduled a meeting in a large, bustling cafe with a diversity of tables, chairs, and benches, each unique.  There are big puffy armchairs, three-legged stools, hardback wooden chairs, bean bags, arty chairs that are made of single swooping pieces of wood, rolling desk chairs on posts that branch out to five wheels, and so on.  Eric is seated in a brown recliner.  The illusionist arrives.

Illusionist [sitting in a Victorian-era armchair]: As I've said many times, Eric, there are no chairs!

Eric: It seems to me that you are sitting in one.

Illusionist: Oh, this thing?  Of course it's not a chair.

Eric: Could you remind me why you think not?

Illusionist: Well, the concept of a chair, as you know, is the concept of a solid object of a certain sort.  And as current physics tells us, the world is mostly empty space.  This thing is not solid!  Therefore, it's not a chair.

Eric: I'm not so sure that's the best interpretation of particle physics, but maybe.  Let's grant that it is.  I don't think that it follows that there are no chairs.  It's not essential to the concept of a chair that it be a "solid object" in the sense you mean.

Illusionist: Well, let's ask some ordinary people.  [Turns toward Cafe Patron 1]  Excuse me, Miss, do you think that a chair is a solid object?

Cafe Patron 1: Yes, of course!

Illusionist [to Eric]: See!

Eric: Look, whatever folk theory ordinary people may or may not have about chairs is not relevant to the point.  Clearly, there are chairs.

Illusionist: Well, philosophical theories also lead us astray.  Over there I see my friend, the Solid Object Theorist.  Let's ask him!

[Illusionist and Eric walk over to Solid Object Theorist]

Illusionist: Hey, SOT, good to see you here!  Do chairs exist?

Solid Object Theorist: Yes, of course!  I'm sitting in one now.

Illusionist: And what are they essentially?

Solid Object Theorist: They are essentially solid objects of a certain sort.  They contain little to no empty space.

Illusionist [to Eric]: See?

Eric: I'm not sure we should accept that philosophical theory about chairs.

Illusionist: But don't you see, both the ordinary person and my favorite philosophical theorist agree that chairs are solid objects, so that must be the concept in play.  So if there there are no solid objects -- as my favorite version of particle physics implies -- there are no chairs.

Solid Object Theorist: The Illusionist and I agree: If there are no solid objects, there are no chairs.  What could be more commonsensical?  The Illusionist accepts the antecedent and so accepts the consequent.  I deny the consequent and so deny the antecedent.  But we agree on the conditional.

Eric: Look, I don't think it's useful to define "chair" in such a theory-laden way.

Illusionist: Well, what do you think a chair is?

Eric: I don't have a positive theory of chairs.  They don't have a single common shape.  Most are made for sitting in, but not all.  And things can be made for sitting in that aren't chairs, so there's no simple functional definition either.

Illusionist: So you have no theory of chairs, and you deny the folk theory, and you deny the Solid Object Theorist's theory, and yet you say there are chairs?  What kind of defense of the existence of chairs is that?

Eric: Look, I think we can define "chair" by example.  Look at that thing, and that thing, and that thing [pointing at various, diverse types of chairs].  They're all chairs.  And that, and that, and that, are not [pointing at a stool, a sofa, and a table, respectively].  Can't we just use the term "chair" to capture whatever it is that the things I've just called "chairs" have in common, which the other things which aren't chairs lack?  I don't think we need to commit to some disputable theory of it.  Look, ordinary people can sort chairs from non-chairs in a consensus way (perhaps with some disputable or in-between cases).  [Turns toward Cafe Patron 2]  Sir, I noticed that you've been attending to my conversation with Illusionist.  So you've seen my examples of chairs and non-chairs.  See that cafe worker coming in with two new objects?  What would you say, is one or both of them chairs?

Cafe Patron 2: That first object [a cheap plastic deck chair] is a chair.  That second object [a yoga mat] is not.

Illusionist: But, sir, wouldn't you agree that chairs are solid objects?

Cafe Patron 2: Yes, of course!

Illusionist: See, Eric, there are no chairs.



Phenomenal Consciousness, Defined and Defended as Innocently as I Can Manage (Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2016)

Inflate and Explode (Sep 6, 2018)

[image: Dall-E 2: lots of chairs, bean bag, lawn chair, rolling desk chair, sofa, hardback chair, soft armchair, occupied by people sipping coffee and chatting]


Keith Frankish said...

Touché! Nice dialogue, Eric, but I don't think your example is a fair one -- at least, not if chairs are analogues for experiences. I've never denied the existence of conscious experiences -- episodes of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling pain, and so on. Such episodes are -- of course! -- real, and we can recognize them when they occur in us. What I reject is a certain theory of how we recognize them. It's the theory that says we recognize them by their 'phenomenal' properties -- intrinsic qualities which we know in a specially direct way and which seem to resist explanation in physical terms. It's those properties I say are illusory. Sure, our introspective mechanisms must be detecting some properties of our experiences, but I don't think introspection reveals the nature of those properties, any more than our perceptual systems reveal the nature of the properties they track. So, to use your analogy, what I deny is that all chairs possess a distinctive perceptible property -- an intrinsic chairiness -- whose nature is obvious to us. There's no such property, and anyone who thinks they can perceive it is the victim of an illusion of some kind. What chairs do share is a family resemblance based on a functional similarity. We are trained to track objects that share this family resemblance, and we can reliably identify chairs without being able to give any account of how we do it. In short, I'm an illusionist about chairiness, not about chairs. And I bet you are too, Eric!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Keith! Therefore, you should agree that consciousness exists, right? It seems that you're only denying a particular epistemic theory about our knowledge of it. It seems to me that it would follow that you should agree there's a theory-neutral referent of "consciousness" or "phenomenal consciousness" after all -- what you allowed in your 2016 reply but seem to have recently been stepping away from.

Keith Frankish said...

Yes, that's right. I do agree that there's a theory-neutral explanandum of consciousness (not of phenomenenal which is defined theoretically as acquaintance with phenomenal properties). It's something like "whatever it is that experience reports and judgements track". Nothing more loaded -- no claims about introspective obviousness, apparent mysteriousness, etc. When I re-read your original reply to me, it seemed that you were endorsing some such claims, albeit weak ones, which is why I stepped back from my earlier endorsement. But if you are happy with the formulation above, then we are on the same page after all!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I think that's pretty close, Keith! But two things:
(1.) There are many "Cambridge" properties that experience reports and judgments track. There needs to be some way to pick out the right property. It's the "obvious" property (not in any heavy-duty sense of obvious), not the property of being say, reported by us and within 30 miles of the Earth's surface. I think we also need to acknowledge the *temptation* to dualist theories of it, or the capacity to wonder if dualist theories might be true, so that rules out its being obviously analytically equivalent to a simple functional definition (hence the "wonderfulness" condition in my 2016 paper).
(2.) I read friends of phenomenal consciousness as more committed to the existence of the phenomenon and its examples than to their philosophical theories about it; so I think they really mean the theory-neutral concept even if they *also* favor theories about it in a way that might misleadingly give the impression that those theories are a sine qua non so that they would doubt that "phenomenal consciousness" existed if those theories were shown to be doubtful.

Keith Frankish said...

Yes, we're getting closer! I do balk at the obviousness bit. I'm not convinced that experiences possess any common obvious feature beyond their making us aware of some aspect of the world. (This was the theme of my dialogue with Ordinary Keith.) I agree that we are tempted to endorse dualism, but I don't think that's because introspection reveals some some property that seems mysterious. Rather, it's because introspection doesn't reveal the complex unmysterious properties it is actually tracking. Our dualist intuitions are a consequence of the limitations introspection. As for terminology, I'm inclined to take a hard line in order to smoke out implicit theoretical commitments! What's the force of 'phenomenal' in 'phenomenal consciousness'?

Tom Clark said...

Keith says there's nothing qualitative that's the common feature of sensory experience. No qualities populate consciousness, either when awake or when dreaming. Why say this? Because he equates experiential qualities, e.g., the feel of pain, with philosophers' qualia: "intrinsic qualities which we know in a specially direct way and which seem to resist explanation in physical terms." As he put it in personal correspondence (see link below): "All we need give up are the philosophers’ notions of qualia, phenomenal consciousness, etc." Ok, but the existence of *qualities* in experience is not in the least controversial or philosophically loaded, as per dictionary definitions of "quality":

“the attribute of an elementary sensation that makes it fundamentally unlike any other sensation,” a “peculiar and essential character,” and “an inherent feature” (Miriam Webster); “a characteristic or feature of someone or something” (Cambridge English Dictionary); “an essential or distinctive characteristic, property, or attribute: the chemical qualities of alcohol,” and the “character or nature, as belonging to or distinguishing a thing: the quality of a sound” (

So it seems to me experiential qualities, e.g., “the quality of a sound,” the feel pain, are a perfectly good pretheoretical, theory-neutral explanatory target for a theory of consciousness, not something we should deny due to physicalist doubts about ever explaining philosopher's qualia. Of course, folks might have dualist intuitions about consciousness, but again that's not a reason to deny the manifestly qualitative nature of sensory experience. It's the nature of experiential qualities that needs to be determined by work on consciousness.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Keith: I do think we needn't be so far apart, except for terminologically. But it's an important piece of terminology, and I suspect that your usage invites the confusions you're constantly trying to fend off. On experience having the common feature of "making us aware of some part of the world" -- heck, I'm not sure I'd want to commit to that theory (is it a form of representationalism?). There's an implicit epistemology there, and "aware" is a troublesome word, straddling the epistemic and phenomenal. On what introspection reveals: I don't necessarily disagree with you on that issue either.

As for the value of using "phenomenal": It disambiguates. "Consciousness" can, unfortunately, be interpreted as meaning "available for use throughout cognition" (e.g., access consciousness) or "self-conscious" or "awake" or.... By adding "phenomenal" we target what philosophers have in mind when they use "consciousness". I'd prefer not to have to use the adjective at all. I like "conscious experience" or "consciousness" as the preferred terminology. But unfortunately, there's confusion about possible senses, so the technical term homes in on the target if there's some potential confusion. That target is best defined by example, as I've argued.

Now you might say that what I've picked out by example is in fact "access consciousness". That is, in my view, epistemically possible, but it is not *analytically* true. It is not true by definition. It is epistemically an open question whether phenomenal consciousness = access consciousness in a way that it wouldn't be an open question if phenomenal consciousness just *means* access consciousness. That's why we need a different term. It might turn out that the two terms have the same referent, but if so, we find that out by investigation (compare "morning star" and "evening star"). I myself don't think that investigation is likely to be complete anytime soon.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Tom: Thanks! I agree that there's a sense of quality or qualia that is not objectionably theory laden. On the other hand, it seems a reasonable terminological choice to reserve "qualia" for the theory-laden property and "consciousness" for the property shared among the examples (which is how I interpret Dennett).

Philosopher Eric said...

I suspect that by reducing illusionism further than illusionists tend to in their own writings, a good deal of its mystery could be avoided. What does illusionism essentially boil down to? The defining component seems to be that consciousness exists by means of worldly causal dynamics. This is to say that it occurs naturally rather than supernaturally.

In practice I find there to be an effective second component as well, and possibly through the influence of Daniel Dennett. The belief is that consciousness arises by means of information processing alone. This is to say, no dedicated consciousness instantiation mechanisms exist. Perhaps the most famous opponent of that position is John Searle, aided by his Chinese room thought experiment. Though his argument ultimate failed however, I’m hopeful that mine will eventually succeed.


I commonly blog with illusionists. Since you’re currently the worlds preeminent illusionist, our conversations sometimes wander to speculation about what you’d say to my arguments. I wonder if you’d take a crack at my thumb pain thought experiment? Some guidance on the matter would be wonderful!

It’s known that when your thumb gets whacked, information about the event is sent to your brain neurally. Furthermore it’s presumed that your brain should then process that information into new information for various responses, such as causing you to feel thumb pain. As a supporter of Johnjoe McFadden I suspect that an experiencer will essentially exist in the form of an electromagnetic field created by means of certain synchronous neuron firing. Conversely I presume you’d tell me that you disagree. All that should be required is for the input information to be processed into the right effective thumb pain information — a processing of one to the other.

Maybe, though consider one implication. Notice that if enough markings on paper which were highly correlated with the information sent to your brain, were scanned into a vast computer that then prints out marked paper that’s highly correlated with your brain’s informational response, then something here should experience the same essential thing that you do when your thumb gets whacked. Is that an effective implication of what you believe?

I consider the proposal non-causal because information should not be said exist in itself, but only in respect to what it informs. So here a lone CD might be said to have potential information stored on it, though only in respect to something like a CD player that it informs. This model mandates that right now each of us have brain information which is animating some sort of consciousness instantiation mechanism that’s reading and assessing these words, and whether in the form of an EM field or something else.

François Kammerer said...

Brilliant but unfair! Illusionists usually take up the famous 90’s analyses of consciousness as a mongrel concept, to disambiguate between senses in which consciousness exists, and senses in which it does not. Self-consciousness, consciousness as awakeness, consciousness as monitoring, access-consciousness – very probably exist. What does not exist is only phenomenal consciousness.
While I’m not 100% in agreement with Keith, notably because I believe that ordinary people can get a grip on phenomenality (the illusory stuff) much easier than he seems to think (given the dialogue you link to), I think that we agree that there are senses in which we really are conscious. So illusionism is not about promoting a blanket ban on the word “consciousness” (and for that matter, I don’t even think that words are so important here).
Now of course, phenomenal consciousness is a term of art, not an ordinary term, and a whole lot will depend on how we define it. Following your trail, we can start by giving a bunch of examples, but then a lot will depend on how we treat the examples. Do we think that “phenomenal consciousness” means nothing but “whatever the examples have in common”? Then obviously PC exists (you can pretty much always find a common property for any set of things). Do we think that it means a bit more, something like: “whatever natural kind property they have in common, and which I am introspectively able to detect?” Then PC might (or might not) exist – but the illusionist does not necessarily have to take a stance here. OR: do we mean more than that – something that we could paraphrase with “the introspectively obvious thing they have in common, which I have a hard time defining in linguistic terms, but of which I have quite a substantive idea, and I bet that you have this substantive idea, which is more than a I-know-not-what, and I think that you see very well what I’m talking about”. In my mind, this is the sort of substantive idea that philosophers usually try to express with “phenomenal consciousness”. The illusionist argument requires showing that this sort of substantive idea, however intuitive, comes with a lot of (implicit) problematic commitments. I think that we have a lot of reasons to believe that it does, and that we can certainly not guarantee that it does not simply because we try to set aside our philosophical theories when we form and examine this idea (roughly: because introspective representations, or folk-psychological representations, which provide us with this substantive idea, might themselves make these commitments. I defended this view here: )
Finally, the example of chairs is unfair because it is actually not very plausible that our concept of chair has similarly problematic commitments (and it certainly does not distinctively have them!). Allow me to play a bit of tennis and suggest another dialogue of my own?

François Kammerer said...


[The dialogue takes place in an imaginary society where almost everyone falsely believes in magic. Benjamin the skeptics meets his friend Morgane, a professional witch, in a café]

Benjamin: Hi Morgane, how are you doing?
Morgane: Fine. Hexing, putting spells – witch stuff. I also need to go to the shop to get my magic wand repaired.
Benjamin: Aha – you know that, as I told you a couple of times, I for one believe that magic does not exist. Neither do witches, nor magic wands.
Morgane: Don’t say that too loud, Benjamin! People are going to laugh at you for denying such obvious things. Look! [Asking a waiter carrying a bottle of wine]. Excuse me, Sir: What is my profession?
Waiter [Looking at Morgane’s attire]: Well, you’re a witch.
Morgane [brandishing a woodstick]: And what is this?
Waiter [Looking confused]: It’s a magic wand of course. What is this, a joke? Is there a hidden camera somewhere? [He takes off, looking annoyed]
Morgane [to Benjamin]: You see? This is just common sense.
Benjamin: Well, I agree that there seem to be magic wands, and that people believe it, I just don’t think that there are any. Your wand is not really magic, it simply seems to be – to people in our society.
Morgane: So, everyone but you is wrong? But what do I hold in my hand, then? What am I bringing to the repair shop? A figment of my imagination?
Benjamin: No, things are a tad more complicated. First, there’s the woody-wand – the w-wand ! – which I define as a piece of wood which is wand-shaped. Then there is the magic wand : the m-wand. This is a w-wand which allows to efficiently cast spells. Then there is the quasi-magic-wand (q-m-wand). This is a w-wand which appears to people in our society to be a m-wand. In my mind, you hold a w-wand, which is also a q-m-wand, but is not a m-wand, because there are no m-wand!
Morgane: Oh Lord, this is complicated. I now understand why you and your nerdy friends specialized in Meta-Magic when in Sorcery School, instead of majoring in Practical Spells. But fine. The real question is: why on earth do you think that there are no m-wand, as you say?
Benjamin: Well, because I believe that w-wand are just not effective at casting spells. I’ve made a whole lot of observations, and really, I think that the so-called spells people cast are just not effective, even if they seem so. Sorry!
Morgane: But effectiveness is a completely different issue! Look at my wand. The reason why I think it needs repair is because I think it’s not working anymore – it’s not effective as casting spells. Still, it’s a magic wand. So, something can be a magic wand even if it does not effectively cast spell. You just happen to have the radical belief that all magic wands are ineffective – fine. But they are still real!
Benjamin: Yeah, I suppose that, in principle, I could also express myself by saying that magic wands exist but are never effective at casting spells.

François Kammerer said...


Morgane: Then why don’t you say this? You would be a much more suitable friend.
Benjamin: Well, the way we think of magic wands in our society always links them, implicitly or explicitly, to the casting of spells. So, if I accept the existence of magic wands, I seem to accept, explicitly or implicitly, that they can cast spells. So, if I add that a magic wand does not in fact cast spells, people get it wrong – they think that the wand must be broken, that it needs fixing, or that the wand has been hexed, or they think that I’m accusing a given wand of being low-quality etc. Moreover, when I accept that there are magic wands, even if I specify that they do not cast spells, people still suppose that there must be something very special that sets magic wands apart from mere piece of wood, and they want to know what it is – as if it was anything but the fact that people think that they are magic wands!
[Benjamin notices that he is about to start an angry rant, calms down, and concludes]
To be frank, Morgane, I have tried it in the past – accepting the existence of magic, witches and wands, but claiming that no spell is ever cast. I was part of this movement called the Weak Skeptics. Boy was it confusing to everyone! I suppose that, ultimately, the idea of magic wands that do not and cannot ever cast spells simply seems deeply unnatural to people. On the other hand, it seems clearer to say that there are no magic wands, as long as I insist that there are w-wand and q-m-wand. For sure, people are surprised, and a bit shocked at first, but it seems simpler.
Morgane: Well, it’s simpler, except that everyone looks at you like you’re insane. After all, there are magic wands: behold! [brandishing again the stick].
[Benjamin gives her a tired smile]
Morgane: Sometimes I wonder if you’re not doing all this in order to.. how do they say again in Beauxbâtons… “épater le bourgeois”? But anyway – I need to go now, the wand shop closes soon.
Benjamin: I’m coming with you. My daughter enters Sorcery School next month, and she needs a magic wand. I figured I could get one second-hand there.
Morgane: Gotcha! You believe in magic wands, since you want to buy one!
Benjamin [mumbling]: These are simply q-m-wands…

Quentin said...

It's not directly relevant, but there are various theories of artefactual kinds (such as chairs) that do not rest on mere family ressemblance. The point of such theories is to explain the fact that members of the kind typically, but not always, have common characteristics. I'm personally convinced by Thomasson's theory, which grounds chairness in being the product of a largely successful intention to make a chair, according to norms mostly shared by prior makers of chairs.

The upshot, I guess, is that a theory of phenomenal consciousness should explain why instances typically have common characteristics. Not sure it helps.

Keith Frankish said...


Thanks for your reply. A few quick responses.

On terminology: Many people are firmly convinced that they are directly acquainted with private mental qualities which are conceptually distinct from functional ones and pose a hard explanatory problem. I think they are the victim of an introspective illusionism of some kind, and I have labelled this view "illusionism". Of course, the label can be misinterpreted -- any label can -- but I think I've made it clear what I mean by it.

On the claim that conscious experiences make us aware (or apparently aware) of some part of the world: I'm not sure I want to commit to it either, but it seems to me the most plausible candidate for an obvious feature that all experiences possess. If they don't all possess it, then maybe they possess nothing in common at all. It's an open question, I think.

On the value of using the qualifier "phenomenal": You say that It distinguishes the target form of consciousness from a functional form defined in terms of access or whatever. That's exactly right -- it introduces a theoretical distinction between a form of consciousness that's defined by functional role and a form that's defined by reference to introspection (say "possession of states with an introspectable subjective feel" -- there's a reason the term 'phenomenal' is used). That's the move I resist! My complaint isn't that it defines pc as non-functional. As you say, it could turn out that this subjective feel is a functional property -- though many people think there's a sound a priori argument that it couldn't. My worry is more basic: it's that in defining the target in this way we are building in theoretical claims about introspection. We're assuming that introspection gives us direct (or least good) epistemic access to the explanatory target. I doubt that it does so, and a truly neutral characterization of the target shouldn't do it. As I said earlier, I'd be happier with something like "whatever it is that experience reports actually track".

Joe said...

Through his examples, Eric seems to be highlighting the fact that these are episodes of subjective awareness, that this is what the examples have in common. This capacity to be aware of anything, including illusions, as opposed to oblivious in the way we imagine inorganic matter to be, is what theories of consciousness have to account for. Illusionism is a theory of the contents of awareness, rather than a theory of consciousness, considered as subjective awareness, itself. The challenge for materialism isn't so much explaining the nature of the contents of awareness, as accounting for awareness itself, considering that it excludes awareness from the inorganic realm.

Disagreeable Me said...

On whether phenomenal consciousness could equal access consciousness -- I don't think so, because I think we should define phenomenal consciousness as whatever there is to consciousness that goes beyond access consciousness, or at least any functional account. On this view, the question is not whether phenomenal consciousness is access consciousness, but whether phenomenal consciousness exists.

Metaphysical Mystic said...

I reject functionalism because the predicate concept upon which it is based is an analogy; and that analogy is that mind is a calculating machine. What makes the endless debates about illusionism so ridiculous is that the contents (all arguments for and against) of the subject concept are contained within the predicate concept. And since the predicate concept is an analogy of a calculating machine, how a calculating machine works can never and will never be able to account for the “feel” of our experience. However, just because the zero-sum game of a priori analysis fails, one does not have to default to some form of dualism to account for the “feel” that a calculating machine lacks.

The real question is this: Can the “feel” of phenomenal experience be accounted for in a materialistic framework? Currently it cannot. Now, this short-coming in understanding is not based upon the reality of matter itself, it is predicated upon our own indiscriminate decision to overlook or reject the very substrate upon which the material world is based. In other words; what is the mechanism responsible for motion resulting in form in a materialistic framework. (Hint, hint: whatever that mechanism is will be universal across the entire spectrum of material systems including our own experience of consciousness).

All theories are derivatives of an original assumption and if that original assumption is incorrect, it only follows that subsequent theories will be forever plagued by contradictions, paradoxes and “hard problems”. This is exactly what we see with any and all current theories of consciousness. (All theories except my own of course).

David said...

I enjoyed these little dialogues very much. Thanks!

One thing they don't bring out as clearly as they might (although it is hard to bring this out) is how the participants disagree not just about what they are saying with the words "chair" or "witch" but about what there IS to say. This is a theme in Stalnaker's work, e.g., "What it is like to be a Zombie", but also in Putnam's early work, e.g., "It Ain't Necessarily So" where he has a nice discussion about "cats" and cats.

This makes the disagreement hard to resolve, since each side thinks the other is asking them, not just to change their mind or change the subject, but to change their mind about what subjects there are to discuss. The disagreement is not so much about the facts or about how to use our words to describe them as about what topics there are to describe.

But this also makes the disagreement hard for us outsiders to describe and formulate in a neutral way. We want each character in our dialogue to be saying something definite when they use the words "chair" and "witch", or at least to think they are, and we want to use OUR words to do this. But our words can't do this. At least one of our characters must be uttering nonsense. But we can't tell which.

My comments are not meant to support one side over the other in this debate but just to point out how very difficult it is to find the common ground needed to even formulate it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all of the thoughtful engagement, folks! You might also be interested in the exchanges on my public Facebook page:

Francois: Nicely put in a way that homes in on the core issue. Our disagreement is that I think the concept people latch onto and that most philosophers mean is the second, and you think it’s the third. Some consciousness-accepting theorists agree with you. This maps very neatly onto my dialogue. You are like the theorist saying the concept of “chair” has heavy particle physics commitments built in, and you can find some non-illusionist philosophers who agree and some apparent folk agreement. So I think the dialogue is spot-on, rather than unfair! Of course, we think the chair illusionist is wrong, but of course that’s the point — to illustrate it with an example where the type of error I think you’re making is obvious.

Philosopher E: Reduced illusionism as you describe it is quite a reasonable position, in my view. I think the problem with illusionism is the inflated semantic claims about what "consciousness" or "phenomenal consciousness" means. Ditch those claims, and it's a position that makes a lot of sense.

Quentin: Yes, that's reasonable. But I think we can successfully refer without such a theory already to hand.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Keith: Thanks for the continued engagement!

You write: "On terminology: Many people are firmly convinced that they are directly acquainted with private mental qualities which are conceptually distinct from functional ones and pose a hard explanatory problem. I think they are the victim of an introspective illusionism of some kind, and I have labelled this view "illusionism". Of course, the label can be misinterpreted -- any label can -- but I think I've made it clear what I mean by it."

Such people might well be mistaken, depending on what "acquaintance" amounts to and what "conceptual distinctness" is and what a "hard explanatory problem" is. It does not follow that "consciousness" in the sense philosophers and consciousness researchers standardly use the term -- or "phenomenal consciousness", to disambiguate that sense from other possible senses -- fails to refer.

You write: "On the claim that conscious experiences make us aware (or apparently aware) of some part of the world: I'm not sure I want to commit to it either, but it seems to me the most plausible candidate for an obvious feature that all experiences possess. If they don't all possess it, then maybe they possess nothing in common at all. It's an open question, I think."

Here's another possibility: They might all be processes in the "global workspace". Here's another: They might all be processes that are the targets of the right kind of "higher order thought". I don't think we need to know or decide to judge it likely that there's something important that the positive examples have in common and the negative examples lack, in virtue of which it's scientifically correct to think we've latched on to the right kind of property with the word "conscious". (1/2)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

... cont

You write: "On the value of using the qualifier "phenomenal": You say that It distinguishes the target form of consciousness from a functional form defined in terms of access or whatever. That's exactly right -- it introduces a theoretical distinction between a form of consciousness that's defined by functional role and a form that's defined by reference to introspection (say "possession of states with an introspectable subjective feel" -- there's a reason the term 'phenomenal' is used). That's the move I resist! My complaint isn't that it defines pc as non-functional. As you say, it could turn out that this subjective feel is a functional property -- though many people think there's a sound a priori argument that it couldn't. My worry is more basic: it's that in defining the target in this way we are building in theoretical claims about introspection. We're assuming that introspection gives us direct (or least good) epistemic access to the explanatory target. I doubt that it does so, and a truly neutral characterization of the target shouldn't do it. As I said earlier, I'd be happier with something like "whatever it is that experience reports actually track"."

I disagree: The approach I recommend doesn't define phenomenal conscious as non-functional. It just doesn't commit to its being functional. Maybe the best definition of "chair" is a functional definition or maybe it's not. I don't think I need to commit one way or another on that when I define "chair" by example. It's epistemically open to me that the best definition of "chair" is not functional, e.g., by appeal to physical resemblance to a set of exemplars; and it's epistemically open to me that the best definition is functional, e.g., something designed for a particular type of sitting, or otherwise. Maybe enough a priori thinking would straighten this out, or maybe not. Similarly, it can be epistemically open that zombies are possible, and it can be epistemically open that zombies are not possible. We don't need to commit to that for "phenomenal consciousness" to have a reference. In fact, if we do commit prematurely, e.g., we commit to its being built into the definition that zombies are not possible, then we illegitimately achieve by redefinition what is legitimately achievable only by philosophical argument. (That's the point of the "wonderfulness" condition in my 2016 paper.) It can even be a priori that zombies aren't possible. Compare: It's a priori that 35 is the square root of 1225, but that's not the best definition of 35 and if you were to find out that you miscalculated and 1225 has no whole root you wouldn't deny that there's a whole number between 34 and 36. (2/2)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Joe: Thanks for that. I have to admit that I find the word "awareness" unhelpful, since I think it straddles between phenomenal and epistemic senses.

Disagreeable me: I'd prefer to say that phenomenal consciousness is at least not *obviously* identical to access consciousness and not best defined in such terms. See my example of 35 and the square root of 1225 in my reply to Keith above.

MM: I want to leave epistemic breathing room for your view to be right *or* for reductionist physicalism to be right, without its being the case that if you or they happen to be wrong it follows that consciousness fails to exist.

David: Yes, I agree. It's a terminological dispute that could be seen by outsiders as a substantive dispute, which makes it difficult for outsiders and sometimes even insiders to see what the target is. This is part of what makes it frustrating to me -- and what is frustrating to "Eric" in the exchange with the chair Illusionist. Let us have our word without hitching it to some tendentious metaphysical or epistemic commitment.

Keith Frankish said...

Eric: Lots to talk about here. Maybe we'll cover some of it on Friday. Just a quick follow up now, on the last of the three points. My worry is not that your approach defines pc as non-functional. It's that it assumes that introspection gives us good access to an explanatory target. Compare chairiness again. Suppose I point to various sample chairs and define chairiness as the perceptually obvious property they all possess. I wouldn't thereby have identified a solid explanatory target for a programme of scientific and philosophical research. And I don't think introspective pointing at sample experiences does so either.

Quentin said...

Regarding "I think we can successfully refer without such a theory already to hand."

I agree. Perhaps the relevant question for your discussion is: when does a kind term fail to refer? I think the response is: when the superficial similarities between instances (on which referential practice is based) are purely coincidental. This would play in your favour I guess, because it's hard to believe in the case of conscious states.

Metaphysical Mystic said...

"...I want to leave epistemic breathing room for your view to be right... without its being the case that if you... happen to be wrong it follows that consciousness fails to exist."

I don't think that epistemic breathing room exists because according to my model, it would be safe to assert that without a physical universe as a substrate that consciousness would fail to exist because it requires the existence of a material world. However, my model starts with grounding assumptions that are not a part of the conventional wisdom of our time.

Certainly you are old enough to remember David Carradine in the TV series Kung Fu: "Ah Grasshopper Eric: in order to understand my model of consciousness you and your fellow academics must first unlearn what you have learned."

SelfAwarePatterns said...

Definitions, definitions, definitions. It seems like once we can acknowledge that we have a terminological dispute, which I think is the case for most of the people in this discussion, we should be able to label the various versions and then discuss our attitudes toward each. Most of us might be in agreement.

That's obviously what Ned Block was trying to do with the phenomenal / access distinction. But people have taken "phenomenal" in different senses. Personally, I think if your conception of phenomenal is distinct from access, which is necessary if there's going to be a hard problem, then you're positing something more than consciousness as it manifestly seems, something with additional theoretical commitments. If all you're positing is that manifest impression itself, it seems like you're no longer talking about what illusionists deny.

I've been wondering lately if a better term for what illusionists deny wouldn't be "fundamental consciousness", in the sense of something simple, irreducible, ineffable, inaccessible, etc. It might get at more clearly the theoretical commitment that's being challenged. Although I suppose that would only work until people starting coming up with alternate meanings of "fundamental".

Philosopher Eric said...

Philosopher E: Reduced illusionism as you describe it is quite a reasonable position, in my view. I think the problem with illusionism is the inflated semantic claims about what "consciousness" or "phenomenal consciousness" means. Ditch those claims, and it's a position that makes a lot of sense.

Ah professor S... but would it truly make a lot of sense if they did merely ditch those inflated semantic claims? I’ll agree that there is nothing to complain about regarding the first part of illusionism, or where they disbelieve consciousness notions which suggest otherworldly dynamics (like it being “ineffable” and such). And though it may sometimes appear that they presume everyone beyond themselves believes that consciousness can only exist by means of spookiness, hopefully that’s not actually what they believe. But let’s say they were to stop implying that when we use terms like “qualia” or “phenomenal experience”, that we must be referring to spooky stuff. Would that put things right? No, I’d say there’s a bigger issue to tackle here as well.

Illusionism isn’t only about what consciousness isn’t, but it’s also about what consciousness is. The belief is that consciousness exists by means of processed information alone, or essentially that this information doesn’t go on to animate any sort of consciousness mechanism. I consider this notion otherworldly because causality mandates that information can only exist as such in respect to an associated informed mechanism. Thus written words shouldn’t be considered informational in themselves, but rather in respect to what reads them (or whatever). My foot shouldn’t be considered informational to a rock in itself, but rather in respect to how it kicks it (or whatever). I don’t think you’ll ever find a case where information should be said to exist independently of an associated dynamic which is thus informed.

Consider my thought experiment yourself. I presume that if a sheet of paper of arbitrary length with the right markings on it, were processed into another such sheet with the right markings on it, then you’d still not suspect that something here would experience what Keith does when his thumb gets whacked. But is it clear to you why this proposition violates causality? It’s because that second sheet of markings would not be informing anything to thus exist as such an experiencer (unlike how written words can inform a reader, a rock can be informed by being kicked, a DVD player can be informed by a DVD, and all else that I know of which functions causally). But if that second sheet of paper were fed into a machine that could interpret those markings to thus animate the right kind of physics (and perhaps an electromagnetic field?), then yes, something here should indeed experience the same essential thing that Keith does when his thumb gets whacked. The experiencer should exist as the EM field or whatever.

Given your coming “Weirdness of the World” book (which I’d literally call “Weirdness of Belief” given the funky sorts of things that people often believe), it seems to me that the existence of illusionism should be a bonus for you. If causality mandates that brains create consciousness by means of something which is informed by brain information however, then illusionists should currently be inhibiting progress in consciousness science.

Metaphysical Mystic said...

To sum up my thoughts on this matter; it’s disingenuous for Frankish or anyone else to continue criticizing, inventing elaborate word games and taking intellectual advantage of the gaping holes in consciousness studies. In contrast to this nonsensical behavior of “stone throwing”, it takes a real sense of authenticity to be a part of the solution by coming up with tenable schemas to the the hard problem of consciousness, models that do not rely upon analogies as their foundation.

Academics are suppose to be the leaders of our intellectual community not celebrities who make their claim to fame by criticizing others and playing elaborate word games utilizing key words and tricky phrases. I challenge Frankish or any other academic to do their job and think outside the box; offer alternative solutions and stop playing these childish games.

However, having just submitted my critique; I also realize that as a society at large we have not been trained to reason correctly let alone think for ourselves. So, in light of this deeply embedded systemic problem within society it seems that nothing will ever change and the status quo will continue.

SIGH......if only I could get Kim Kardashian to endorse my solution to the hard problem of consciousness, then I would immediately be skyrocket to fame. What a world we live in, eh folks?

Arnold said...

Is to fundamentally deny Just part of...
... cosmological Processes in the use of Energy...

Balance Between Forces...
...positive negative neutral or active passive restive or...

chinaphil said...

I feel like my objection to ES's "phenomenal consciousness" would just be Occam: it seems to be multiplying entities. Seeing as I don't think I'd assent (at the outset) to any quality or feature of "phenomenal consciousness," positing this thing just feels like a way to introduce something into the debate that shouldn't be there. For example, I wouldn't accept a priori that "phenomenal consciousness" exists; does not exist; overlaps with or is supervenient on other kinds of consciousness; is separate from other kinds of consciousness; is universal (among humans); is universally agreed upon; can be described in language; cannot be described in language; is/is not available to introspection; etc., etc.
So I'm stuck saying: I suppose I don't mind if you define a term like that, but as soon as you say anything about it, I would need to argue it out, so... I don't see the value of having the term (yet). If "consciousness" is ambiguous, that seems to me to be because we don't yet know what it is. Trying to create subdivisions within the "consciousness" conceptual space before there is sufficient agreement is unlikely to succeed.

Keith Frankish said...

Eric: I was just reading your excellent borderline consciousness paper (whose arguments could, with some re-framing, be used to support illusionism!), and I found this passage:

'There is, as I suggested in Section 1, an obvious property that conscious experiences share in common, and the term “conscious” refers to that obvious property. I see little room for its being indeterminate what kind of property this term refers to – though of course we might be, and probably are, ignorant about what physical or functional property is identical with this introspectively discoverable property, or whether indeed any physical or functional property is identical to it.' (ms p.27)

I think this goes to the heart of where we differ. Not the bit about introspection being non-committal as to whether consciousness is identical with some physical/functional property. I'm OK with that. I mean the bit about introspection revealing that consciousness is a determinate kind of property. I doubt that that introspection does this. How can we be sure it's tracking a determinate kind of property if we've no idea what kind of property it is? For all we know, it might be tracking properties of different kinds, unified only by their disposition to trigger experiences reports.

I suspect it's this commitment to the existence of an introspectively obvious determinate property that makes it hard for you to conceive of the borderline cases for whose existence you argue so convincingly. Drop it, and everything becomes easier (and you become an illusionist!).

Looking forward to talking to you tomorrow!

Tim Smith said...

@Chinaphil If we have to wait for sufficient agreement on consciousness before subdividing “consciousness” conceptual space, we might as well reside in the skeptical green room and never venture out to raise the curtain. We either chunk it or junk the project and get on with our strutting and fretting. The authentic philosophical and scientific take is a junket to a resort, or if funding and conference budgets don’t allow, a room like the one tomorrow promises, I presume, where we all dance on Occam’s edge while enjoying the sun and after effect of atmospheric rivers. I’d instead take a poke or two here, even if attention is elsewhere.

@Francois The Quasi-wand is the most satisfying, perhaps, demonstrating a path that can work alongside the manifest M-wand. We need a third interlocutor in your dialogue, to flesh out this quasi idea, and let me speak to that fiction, if not as creatively as you do.

Quasi-physical systems are real, exciting, and mathematically reflected by John Conway’s Game of Life that might drop the Q if allowed enough imagination and a body to inhabit.

Consciousness can incorporate all the segments of Newton’s apple, Newton’s experience of the apple, Newton’s mind, and his alchemical wiles. I may be an Illusionist at heart, but evolution, emergentism, language, and culture have brought me to this position kicking and screaming. 

The Neural Correlates of Consciousness (NCC) should be included in the discussion, which are the bridge to the physical model upon which we build our illusions. If we hope to explain ourselves, we must get there from one side of the explanatory gap. The troll guarding the bridge is the NCC.

The phenomenal concepts strategy (PCS) founded on phenomenal concepts (pc) (and ironically, in the case of the Illusionist, denial of these particular concepts if accompanied by intuitive ownership) comes with concerns of cognitive isolation of pc from the others – such as access, reflection, narrative, and extended. 

Panpsychism aspires to a complete model, giving all matter consciousness to some extent. At least the panpsychism brings a bit of quantification to the room if it doesn’t pay for the resort together. Despite paying the bill, panpsychism puts the physicalism view as the mother of illusionism front and center. If I object to the illusionist view, it is because it doesn’t offer a physical model, which the panpsychist at least puts a number toward.

Not to get too AI happy, and instead return to Francois’ quasi magic wand, I would wave this stick and conjure a third alternative that might as well be an illusion for all the physical NCC I can muster to summon the consciousness it describes. We are likely quasi-magical models built in our heads from ancestral access and reflective concepts. These illusions have their reality that can split, grow and decline piecemeal, somewhat correlated to our embodiment. At the same time, we have phenomenal experience that refers to the world. If I were to separate myself from my fellow illusionists (who cast me aside a few paragraphs back), it would be to change my metaphysical origin from illusion to quasi-physical being in this blog, room, and world.

To prove this quasi-being exists, I would build it. That is happening, even if it hasn’t happened yet.

I need to gain the imagination to create dialogue like Francois or Eric. Still, I would teleport to this room and enjoy the entertainment and edification any presence of mind is capable of experiencing thinking about these views. 

Thanks for this romp. I learned a ton from your sharing here.

Philosopher Eric said...

SelfAwarePatters: I've been wondering lately if a better term for what illusionists deny wouldn't be "fundamental consciousness", in the sense of something simple, irreducible, ineffable, inaccessible, etc. It might get at more clearly the theoretical commitment that's being challenged. Although I suppose that would only work until people [start] coming up with alternate meanings of "fundamental".

Yes Mike, I’d say the “fundamental” term might help people grasp the theoretical commitments which illusionists challenge. Better still however might be to state those theoretical commitments explicitly — this should tend to semantically evolve much more slowly than individual terms tend to. Thus I state that the essential theoretical commitment which illusionists challenge, is that consciousness can exist by means of anything other than worldly causal dynamics.

Also understand however that it may not be in the interests of illusionist’s to be understood explicitly. Notice that they’re currently able to attack the consciousness ideas of others, though without their own such ideas being attacked (except for Eric Schwitzgebel who doesn’t like them using inflated consciousness notions to effectively make a mockery of philosophy of mind). The best defense is sometimes a good offense — by focusing upon what consciousness isn’t, no one prominent today seems to scrutinize what they think consciousness is. And what do they think consciousness is? Beyond the obvious (which they introspect just as the rest of us do), it’s that consciousness arises by means of information processing alone.

I argue that their second tenet violates their first — in a causal world processed information should only exist as such in respect to what it informs. Thus to exist as such, consciousness information should need to animate an associated consciousness substrate. So I think it’s in the interests of illusionist to continue speaking vaguely. Otherwise they might receive unwanted scrutiny that eventually brings their movement down.

SelfAwarePatterns said...


"is that consciousness can exist by means of anything other than worldly causal dynamics."

I think this is true for all physicalist positions. But a lot of physicalists aren't illusionists.

I don't think illusionists are inflating consciousness. They are attacking an inflated view of it, but as Eric-S recognized in his initial post about this, not one they created. I think that's clear when we read what Nagel, early Jackson, Block, and others actually say. It is true that after Dennett's Quining Qualia paper, many philosophers claim to be asserting something less problematic, but interact with them at any length, and the attributes Dennett identified and demolished tend to come up, albeit often with other names, an elusiveness Dennett recognized in the opening section of his 1988 paper.

I've never found questioning the motivations of those we disagree with to be productive, unless maybe they're selling something.

Arnold said...

Say we find ourselves constantly in a quantum field...
...everywhere there is something of value...

We are told Socratic stories of two sides to everything...
...implying implicating otherness between values...

Are we this otherness... fields of values...

Anonymous said...

The poor illusionist has no chair to rest on and no mind to understand its own position.

Philosopher Eric said...

Well illusionists are certainly selling something Mike, so I guess you’d consider it potentially productive for me to question their motives. In truth I think we should all question the motives of others constantly in the attempt to better grasp what’s going on. And yes, a Trump supporter will tend to offer motivation as a way to dismiss the claim that he raped a woman in a department store many years ago — she must be telling lies for fame and money. But given the circumstances, which scenario makes the most sense?

What I’ve done is reduce illusionism down to two essential features so that people might better assess the position. If anyone would like to submit that I’m mistaken about those two essential features however, then let’s hear your arguments. For example, do any illusionists support the positions of John Searle? If my reduction is solid however then shouldn’t this be considered a service to their cause? Wouldn’t they like to be better understood? Or when we get down to the essentials of the position itself, would they rather people not understand what they believe quite that well?

SelfAwarePatterns said...

By "selling something" I meant products or services for money. Think of Deepak Chopra's supplements, soaps, meditation tapes, etc. At best, illusionists sell articles and books, but no one, I think, expects to make a fortune with that.

Illusionism is usually paired with physicalism but it doesn't necessarily have to be. There are people like James Tartaglia who are non-physicalist illusionists. The central tenet of illusionism, as I understand it, is that introspection is no more reliable than any other form of perception, so we should be cautious with any conclusions based only on it.

This is why, although I don't deny the illusionist label anymore, I still prefer the functionalist one, because it more accurately reflects what I think is the case. Of course, functionalism is what Searle attacks, but I think he and his fans need to question their intuitions more.

Tim Smith said...


SelfAware-Pat is more generous and helpful.

Your two-point reduction of Illusionism may give you a sense of balance when you insinuate a Reductio Ad Trump, but it is wisdom, courage, and moderation, not motivation, that offers stability. The Illusionist may have no chair to sit in, but whatever stool we build needs to be balanced, and Francois and Keith are not entirely aligned enough to offer a two-point straw man.

There is room to squirm here for the Illusionist, and squirming is required to claim knowledge of consciousness, which no one here does, including yourself.

What is your motive, Philosopher Eric? I think you want to question Illusionism in a Popperian sense as unprovable. You may have other reasons. Once you have invoked the Reductio argument, I lose interest.

Regarding your two points, the Illusionist may not have a chair to sit in, but at least the ultimate question does not miff them, why is there anything at all?

I can’t speak for the Illusionists in the room, but there are a variety of views to which they might remove themselves if pushed out by your arguments. Emergentism is the primary one, but panpsychism tendency is another, as are other pluralistic views, most of which Keith and Francois, I presume, would find repugnant. There is no bottom, as yet, to correlate our thoughts other than the safety of collegiality. There is a time to drop respect, but no offense here demands it.

The world cares little for our motives, even if they stem from the world we live. Our views, on the other hand, can be warped by our desire and change the world to our liking even. I would instead find a natural path.

Philosopher Eric said...

That was a very well spoken response Tim. My good friend Mike and I have discussed this matter endlessly so I’m currently much more interested in your thoughts on the matter.

As you know we all have motivations which incite what we do. If you put a creature in [this] situation then it will want [whatever]. If you put a creature in [this other] situation then it will want [whatever]. And so on. These are reductions, or explanations for why it behaves as it does. I’ve reduced illusionists to those who believe that consciousness exists by means of worldly causal dynamics, as well as that it occurs by means of information processing alone. I suspect that the second premise violates the first. This is to say that in a causal world information processing alone should not create consciousness, but rather consciousness should exist by means of informing some sort of consciousness substrate. The most simple way to illustrate this that I know of is my thumb pain thought experiment. So maybe you could give it a go?

Here we have a sheet of paper with markings on it highly correlated with the information which is neurally sent to Keith’s brain when his thumb gets whacked. It’s then processed into another sheet of paper with markings on it which are highly correlated with Keith’s brain’s informational response. As an illusionist I presume you believe that if the first set of markings were converted into the second, then something here would experience what Keith does when his thumb gets whacked. But what? Do you believe that the ink on paper itself would experience this? Or in another example, maybe the informational pits or whatever on a musical CD exist as “music”?

I personally consider this consciousness explanation to be supernatural since I think causality mandates that nothing exist informationally without it informing an associated substrate. So in a causal world a CD is not informational (in the sense that we mean) except when it informs a CD player (or whatever). Thus I think the marks on that second sheet of paper would need to animate some sort of consciousness substrate to exist informationally in the sense that we mean. But if the right kind of substrate were informed by the markings on that second sheet of paper, then yes, I’d say that this substrate would experience what Keith does when his thumb gets whacked.

What do you think? Should an informed substrate be required to exist as an experiencer of consciousness (such as the right kind of electromagnetic field), or would you say that consciousness information can exist independently of an associated substrate?

Jim Cross said...

"The central tenet of illusionism, as I understand it, is that introspection is no more reliable than any other form of perception"

I've heard this many times before, but the fact is that we have but introspection to understand anything at all about the world unless you believe understanding does not require mind. Fundamentally when we look at the world we are looking at our own mind.

Arnold said...

Its when inside place is-maybe possible...
...when outside place is-infinitely possible ...

Developing tendencies toward here now...
...on a small planet help...

SelfAwarePatterns said...

"Fundamentally when we look at the world we are looking at our own mind."

I guess that depends on what we mean by "look". Obviously the fact that we can (usually) navigate the world means it has some effect on our perceptions. If you mean it's an active predictive process rather than a passive one, I'm onboard. But predictions, both about the world and ourselves, can be wrong.

Philosopher Eric said...

Jim, I think an illusionist would say that you’ve exchanged the concept of consciousness itself for introspection here. We of course must use consciousness to assess things in general, since “consciousness” is ultimately what we are. Mike has reduced illusionism to people who believe we should be skeptical of using our own consciousness to assess our own consciousness, which is to say “introspection”. That doesn’t tell us why we should be skeptical however. So I think I still like my first tenet of illusionism better, or that they disbelieve notions of consciousness which have supernatural implications.

Then he’s also placed my second tenet of illusionism under a different label, which is to say “functionalism”. So it could be that prominent illusionists like Keith and François just happen to be functionalists as well. (Another such term would be “computationalism”.) In any case the belief here is that consciousness arise by means of certain information processing alone. I consider this to be a supernatural account since information should only be said to exist to the extent that it informs an appropriate causal substrate. And Tim Smith is right that I consider the position unfalsifiable, as befits supernatural positions in general. Without a consciousness substrate to assess empirically, we could go on forever searching for the right hypothetical chatbot code converted to more such code so that something here would eventually experience its existence phenomenally. Conversely when a consciousness substrate is directly proposed, as McFadden does, then theoretically that substrate could be tested empirically.

That’s how I think this tragic mess will eventually end. This is to say that scientists should eventually demonstrate that certain synchronous neuron firing creates an electromagnetic field in the head which itself exists as a phenomenal experiencer. I suspect that this will become one of the most transformative scientific achievements that the world will ever know.

Tim Smith said...


SelfAwarePatterns sounds like a jolly old elf and indulgent to boot.

Creatures are not all humans; some are unfamiliar with their motivations, and some are not even intelligent. Try talking to the parent of a hydrocephalic child and tell them their child is not conscious and never will be even when they respond and smile. It doesn't go well or feel right.

The idea that we can determine motivation by changing a creature's situation is unhelpful, albeit indicative of theory. Though it sometimes calms a baby to strap it to a car seat and take a drive, they often need to use their words to get at motive. Animals, plants, and other life forms are even worse in this respect. You can apply a probe to the exposed brain of a cat to show affect. Still, there is a profound question as to whether that is actually affective, repeatable, or inter/intra-comparably useful.

I may be an Illusionist, but when these sorts of people tell me I'm not, it is due to my fawning over my own projects. I tend to go where the data leads and experience misleads. When all else fails I attend to other people's projects when problems are intransigent. Here I am. There are exceptions, though. @Chinaphil appears the wiser droid if not the one I am seeking. We may need a true Turing to proceed.

I wish you all the best,


Jim Cross said...

"Obviously the fact that we can (usually) navigate the world means it has some effect on our perceptions. If you mean it's an active predictive process rather than a passive one, I'm onboard. But predictions, both about the world and ourselves, can be wrong".

What does illusionism predict?

It seems like a straw man argument against naïve realism.

Jim Cross said...


Yeah, I did exchange introspection and consciousness somewhat rhetorically. Consciousness is a representation of the world so, in that sense, whenever we look at the world (or engage in an active predictive process) we are engaging with mind. Since any predictive process can be wrong, it is trivial to argue that introspection, as the term is normally used, is unreliable. Mind whether looking at itself (maybe not actually possible?) or looking at anything else is only as reliable as the next observation.

SelfAwarePatterns said...

Jolly old elf? Well, as I get older, I increasingly find going for the jugular pointless. Nobody gets convinced by it. And I do my best to ignore people who go for mine. (Not always successfully. :-)

SelfAwarePatterns said...

"What does illusionism predict?"

That qualia or phenomenal properties, in the sense of something irreducible, unanalyzable, scientifically inaccessible, yet infallibly known, doesn't exist. The only reason we have for thinking it does is introspection, and introspection is unreliable.

Of course, if we deflate "phenomenal" sufficiently, we can say it exists, but at the cost of losing its distinctiveness from access functionality.

Jim Cross said...

"That qualia or phenomenal properties, in the sense of something irreducible, unanalyzable, scientifically inaccessible, yet infallibly known, doesn't exist. The only reason we have for thinking it does is introspection, and introspection is unreliable".

Proving something doesn't exist can be difficult. What experiment can we do to prove that phenomenal properties in the sense you describe don't exist?

But who is arguing it is any of those things anway aside from Deepak Chopra et al?

It seems like illusionism makes a big to-do about something most scientists and philosophers already agree on. Where's the beef?

It would have more impact if you just said: "qualia or phenomenal properties don't exist".

SelfAwarePatterns said...

"What experiment can we do to prove that phenomenal properties in the sense you describe don't exist?"

What experiment proved that phlogiston doesn't exist? Or the luminiferous aether? Or the elan vital? Eventually the lack of evidence or utility of a concept leads people to stop talking about it, except as a history lesson.

"But who is arguing it is any of those things anway"

Ones that immediately come to mind: Thomas Nagel, early Frank Jackson, David Chalmers, and Philip Goff. I'm sure the professionals here could list many more. Basically property dualists and most panpsychists.

Of course, many of them might disavow the attributes, but pay attention to why they think there is a hard problem. As Dennett noted in his 1988 Quining Qualia paper: "My quarry is frustratingly elusive; no sooner does it retreat in the face of one argument than "it" reappears, apparently innocent of all charges, in a new guise." Frankish explicitly targets this issue in his Quining Diet Qualia paper.

Philosopher Eric said...

I wasn’t actually talking about a given subject grasping its motivations in order to be conscious. That would be a high bar indeed! (And I do suspect that hydrocephalic children phenomenally experience their existence. It should just be in a highly crippled capacity, though phenomenal nonetheless.) I was actually talking about us observing a given conscious subject to potentially grasp its motivations, and specifically the motivations of illusionists.

On my first reduction of illusionism, or that they believe consciousness can only exist by means of worldly causal dynamics, that doesn’t seem very mysterious. It’s the only way that consciousness could even potentially be explored scientifically. But why do illusionists also tend to believe that consciousness exists by means of information processing alone? What has motivated them (or at least many of them) to hold this belief as well?

First I think that they’ve simply been unaware that there’s anything spooky about the notion. John Searle did try to warn them, though I don’t think his arguments were simple or explicit enough. And notice that once you accidentally build a magical notion into your world view, it may be difficult to give up implications of that magic simply because of sensible contrary arguments. Here I’m referring to the dream of having human consciousness be uploaded to a computer given that it’s all just information processing anyway — no specific kind of consciousness substrate for information to animate. Science fiction may loom large here.

Apparently no one in this thread has yet bitten the bullet to admit they believe that if a sheet of paper with the right markings on it, were processed into another sheet of paper with the right markings on it, then something would thus experience what Keith does when his thumb gets whacked. I guess no one has yet felt enough motivation to make such a commitment in support of their beliefs. I suspect this admission could be far more damaging than merely admitting that Searle’s hypothetical Chinese room would “understand”. But in that new Mind Chat with professor S, didn’t he use the premise of materialism to get Keith admit that he thinks the United States itself is probably consciousness? It was a little vague to me if anyone would like to confirm or deny that admission.

Jim Cross said...

"What experiment proved that phlogiston doesn't exist? Or the luminiferous aether? Or the elan vital? Eventually the lack of evidence or utility of a concept leads people to stop talking about it, except as a history lesson".

Both aether and elan vital may be making comebacks in a modified form. Of course, simply asserting life comes from elan vital doesn't add any utility, but if you start looking at how life is organized with spontaneous electrical low-frequency oscillations we can find something that can be researched and maybe useful to explaining life.

But I don't that is exactly analogous. The argument that consciousness is an illusion is more like saying life doesn't actually exist, that organisms are really just unusual machines. That approach doesn't really lead anywhere even though it may, in fact, be somewhat true, because it fails to account for how organisms are different from ordinary machines.

That is the same problem here. If we think the idealists are wrong, then we need to account for how consciousness arises in matter. But declaring it an illusion is simply trying to do an end run around the problem without doing any of the hard work on the hard problem.

Arnold said...

Evolution Physical Consciousness...are different...

Dependent Independent Inbetween processing...
...for understanding Here Being...

Tim Smith said...

@ SelfAwarePatterns – By Jolly Old Elf, I meant charitable as in St. Nick, not old as you or I may or may not be, though, word to the wise, I am old. I appreciate your judgment and inclination if I disagree with your view on consciousness.

@ P-Eric – Thanks for this clarification. I have projects until the end of this week, and I was hoping Francois would respond. If he doesn’t, I will, if I can. Your pseudo-Searle thought experiment is interesting and fruitful, if overly simple, perhaps. I like back and forth, but you all are too familiar, and I am an outsider and, yes, a registered Republican. Thanks for emphasizing your idea here. It won’t stand the heat, I think, and as I said above, I am not a strict Illusionist, but I can / will raise this thought experiment if no one else will.

Unfortunately, this blog was more of a poster for a phone chat. Francois is a profound thinker who could have added much to this parlay. These ideas will determine the spending of precious research dollars we all need.

You couldn’t be more wrong about the unfortunate clinical decompression of hydrocephaly for children and relating the facts of the matter to their parents. This is the only place I will call you out as wrong, as your theory of consciousness is still to be written and fruitful even if it fails to describe or find a genuine human identity. A smile is not always what it seems, but I haven’t been smiling much recently.

This blog was fun, as was the show.



Philosopher Eric said...

(1 of 2)
Wow Tim, it would be wonderful if you’d address my thought experiment after your week’s projects! And in truth I’m not picky about when. To set this up I’ll briefly walk through Searle’s Chinese room to note certain features which might make my thought experiment superior.

First note that Searle began his from the hypothetical that some day it would be possible for a standard computer to understand what someone was saying, as well as provide an intelligent response given that understanding. So here Searle effectively needed to presume the truth of something that he considered impossible, though obviously in the quest to demonstrate that impossibility. That’s fine for a thought experiment, though even entertaining the notion may have subtly boosted his opposition — as in “Everyone knows that future computers will be able to understand human languages John, so get with the program!” Fortunately my own thought experiment does not depend upon constructing a scenario where the parodied notion also happens to be true.

Searle’s scenario begins with a note written in Chinese that enters his room. Since he doesn’t read or understand Chinese at all, the premise is that he’d then do what a hypothetical conscious computer would to provide an intelligent response — implement that computer’s algorithms himself given a ridiculously large filing cabinet of instructions detailing the algorithms of that computer for an appropriate Chinese response. Since he’d obviously still not understand what came in or out however, Searle figured that this hypothetical computer wouldn’t understand anything either. Or to clarify, not by means of implementing algorithms alone.

Notice that a “systems reply” seems like a reasonable challenge. We needn’t presume that an instrument implementing the algorithms (like Searle himself), would be the understander. Thus his opposition could effectively dodge his assessment by claiming that he’d merely be one component of a larger machine (whether the entire room or whatever) that consciously understands what those Chinese characters say, as well as intelligently responds to them with appropriate Chinese characters. My own thought experiment however does not have this vulnerability.

Philosopher Eric said...

(2 of 2)
Another challenge I’ve heard is that the premise depends upon how silly it would be for Searle to preform all the information processing of a hypothetical future computer, given that he’d just be a man implementing computer code. Though that’s not why I consider the scenario silly, fortunately my thought experiment is not vulnerable to this response as well. My thought experiment explicitly permits an advanced computer of arbitrary capacity do the processing, rather than a person.

Another concern I think is that Searle used the proxy for consciousness of “understanding”, though the term can be interpreted in all sorts of ways. Conversely I use a consciousness proxy that should be far more difficult to misinterpret. This would be the notion of what’s experienced when one’s thumb gets whacked.

In the end I’m not sure Searle quite grasped the key supernatural component to his opposition’s platform. The reason that code converted to more code should not create something that “understands”, or “feels thumb pain”, or anything else phenomenal, I think, is because in a causal world code should only exist as such in relation to what it codes. Thus in order for thumb pain to exist by means of marked paper converted to more marked paper, or a Chinese room, or the United States as a whole, or the human brain… each should need to generate information which animates the right sort of physics.

Furthermore I think it’s important to not leave people to wonder what that might practically mean. So I also provide an example that might very well be empirically validated some day. It’s that certain synchronous neuron firing creates an electromagnetic field that itself might exist as a phenomenal experiencer of existence such as yourself. The main difference between this proposal and virtually all else on the market today, is that it could potentially be disproven.

For reference, my thought experiment here is found my first comment above, and addressed to Keith.

Tim Smith said...

P-Eric, Wow indeed. No pretention intended. Hey...stop anticipating the negatives, it's the positives that are interesting. I will do this soon. Getting paid takes priority. Still hoping Keith or Francois checks in.

Tim Smith said...

Captain Illusion: Right then, all illusionists agree - information processing is the secret ingredient in the consciousness concoction. But Eric may have missed the mark (and perhaps a much-needed espresso shot) with his example.

In Eric's paper-based predicament, the first sheet is like a thumb-whacking distress signal, while the second represents the brain's response. But it's not just a simple "message in, message out" that stirs conscious experiences. Our brains are more like a bustling coffeehouse, brimming with complex neural baristas brewing up some magic!

So, what's the bottom line (or the crema on our espresso)? The sheets of paper lack the biological dream team required to craft consciousness. The elegant waltz of neural processes inside our cerebral coffee joint conjures the illusion of consciousness, not mere ink on paper.

In a nutshell/coffee bean, we illusionists have covered Eric's thought experiment like a cozy coffee sleeve. While the brain is undoubtedly a substrate for information processing, it's the intricate organization and causal powers of the brain that give rise to the intoxicating scent of consciousness. Lacking those essential features, the sheets of paper are nothing more than an incomplete order waiting for some neural barista magic.

With our combined knowledge and unique perspectives, we shall confront and vanquish the menace of Eric's Thumb Pain Experiment! (Even if Keith and Francois choose to skip our brouhaha.)

Must sleep now!

Tim Smith said...

P-Eric, Let's do this...I created a pseudo-dialogue to get this interlocution going, but I have an issue getting it to post. Let me troubleshoot that, and if all else fails, do this prose style.

I enjoyed the dialogues here, Keith's, Eric's, and Francois', and found that it sharpened the back and forth. That is where art and philosophy intersect. If I can't get my dialogue to post by this evening, I will default to the unromantic style.

Your thought experiment touches on many arguments, and I wanted to present that first before going back and forth here. It worked above... but I suspect that I am suspected. I will let my multiple submits cook and see if they post before rehashing the obvious, which must be said first.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sorry for the delay in posting, Tim! Due to spam, comments on posts over a week old are held in my email until I have a chance to approve them.

Philosopher Eric said...

Utterly hilarious Tim! I especially like the table made of repurposed qualia.

Regardless you’ve essentially helped legitimize my argument. Notice that if an argument is presented, though no discussion results from it, then it might as well not have been presented at all. I think that’s what Keith and François must hope with mine, given how embarrassing it could be to defend against the accusation that they’ve accidentally built a supernatural belief into their worldviews. And just imagine the consternation of the elder Dennett, that is if things were to progress far enough for him to be affected. Might some of his legacy itself be dismissed as magical? Of course this is all just big talk right now, though intriguing I think. Who can say how things will eventually go?

In your general illusionist superhero discussion, I assess their answers to essentially be… to stick by their guns and do nothing at all. But then Captain Illusion goes further to essentially convert over to the embodied cognition club. John Searle is essentially one of these, and with certain caveats I am too. I don’t think an illusionist could satisfy the public this way however, since today people are highly focused upon chatbot consciousness. Many fear that these things will become smarter than us, and so when convenient they’ll kill us off. People also want to get in on the fun, like to have their own minds be uploaded to conventional computers for effectively eternal existence. This is all lost if causality mandates that information can only exist as such, in respect to what it informs. In that case consciousness would need to exist by means of the right kind of physics based substrate rather than processed information alone.

This needn’t be all about me however. Maybe we could get into your question for François? What I make of it is that you’re a bit of a stickler for empirically derived answers, and so posit neural correlates for consciousness as a gatekeeper that illusionists need to address. I agree. I could go further as well since I’m told that firing synchrony is the only reasonable NCC found so far. This supports McFadden’s EM field consciousness proposal. But what points would you like to make? I believe there was something about François’ reference to a quasi magic wand?

On comment delay, I’m not too concerned since I have other things to address for the weekend as well. Then during the week it’s mainly work, though I do have a bit of time at night (except I relax on Fridays).

Tim Smith said...


I thought you’d like that. Yes, there is no honest dialogue, partly because the menace poses no threat to the Illusionist position if we all agree that embodiment confuses everything. Each superhero has his view of the substrate you demand. Graziano’s Attention Schema Theory, Rosenthal’s HOT, Friston’s Predictive Processing, and Jackson’s Functionalism all present substrate enough and very differently. But in countering the information processing conundrum, each assumes an embodied brain, which, to be fair, is the only sort of brain that exists in nature. So there can be no simple message in the message out.

The qualia vanquisher is the most deserving of a thumb whack, though. Dennett is formidable and wouldn’t go down without a good fight. Were you thinking specifically of him? His qualia quashing or quining seems to be a theme. If so, let me spend some time there, if only because I have read more of his stuff, and arguably he has inspired global workspace and integrated information theory. The vanquisher doesn’t point to a specific substrate but prefers multiple, parallel information-processing streams. Yes, it is a cop-out – and the magic happens in limbo. Some known phenomena proceed down parallel paths, however. Vision is the poster child there and the best understood. Dennett would argue that consciousness is an emergent process from the brain’s intricate workings rather than being tied to a particular physical substrate.

If we agree on the embodiment, the rest is cake and open for discussion. McFadden’s Conscious Electromagnetic Information (CEMI) Field Theory is foreign to me. I would give the glia more credit before reaching to induction capacitance models of neuronal interaction (I’m not sure what that even means – nor do I understand why we don’t see more conscious interaction with electromagnetic flux if so.)

This last bit about convincing the masses doesn’t interest me much. People who think they are talking to thinking machines while interacting with large language models are probably as good an argument for Illusionism as any other. People will fall for anything, including their own thought stream, as being significantly conscious (and I kind of do in an anti-illusionist way – I’m not a happy person.) The Folk Manifest image will never equal the scientific image that philosophers like Dennett and Gra) Ziano are concerned with.

The quasi-wand is where most of the Folk get stuck. The brain creates objects that seem to have reality – the colors, taxes, emotions to a large degree, and even personal identity. Quasi-wanding is where Illusionism shines. Francois goes there, Keith not so much. These quasi-objects take tangible form through our projects/work/sub-conscious processes. Some of that is Bayesian; some is innate – perhaps previously Bayesian. That is all I would say about Francois’ dialogue.

It takes a lot to create good dialogue. The work Keith, Eric, and Francois did here is helpful. Humor helps as well. Respect is required. Your thought experiment puts the focus in the right place. Where is this happening? In the podcast, I asked Eric S to specify where he saw consciousness happening in the United States – if it were a conscious being. He seemed comfortable assigning consciousness to insect hives but balked at pointing at democracy, labor unions, fads, or social media to model any form of consciousness. I’m not doing that either, but I’m looking.

Philosopher Eric said...

I’m not sure many prominent theorists today are part of the embodied cognition club. (I see from The following recent article however that Anil Seth is!) I do also take issue with many in the club however. They often try to close off discussion with the unhelpful assessment that mind essentially requires “life stuff”. But if life is made of physics, then theoretically our computers could also be built to incorporate such physics.

In any case I now realize that your perception of the theorists you’ve mentioned is that they’d deny the possibility for some set of markings on paper, converted to some other possible set, would thus create an experiencer of what you experience when your thumb gets whacked. I’d be happy if this were true. Furthermore if some of them weren’t exactly sure why naturalism mandates this, I’d tell them. I’d say that because information can only exist as such in respect to what it informs, the second sheet of paper would need to inform the right sort of physics (which is to say, the essential experiencer). I don’t think their theories need to propose such physics, and thus become falsifiable, though to stay on the natural side of my thought experiment, I do think they’d need to explicitly admit that some such physics is mandated beyond what they propose.

Back when Alan Turing was teaching people about computers through his imitation game, I think some took this as an effective way to build something conscious on the sly. They decided that they’d simply need to use enough algorithms for it to seem like it understands English — a heavily anthropocentric hope indeed. Imagine evolution building consciousness in such a backwards way! Yes I do have problems with Dennett, and mainly in the sense that he’s been a very good showman promoting a hope that I consider unnatural.

The thing I like about Schwitzgebel’s USA consciousness experiment, is that it shows how utterly unfalsifiable standard (supposedly) materialist consciousness theories happen to be on the basis of the existing USA — nothing hypothetical to build. Then my own thought experiment takes things to another level by denying materialism to any theory which posits consciousness by means of information processing alone. Of course he couldn’t tell you what element would be the experiencer — in the standard paradigm that he’s been under, no such substrate is ever proposed.

Philosopher Eric said...

Here’s a quick run through on McFadden’s CEMI, preceded by some of my own speculation about evolution:

Imagine various organisms with entirely non-conscious brains, perhaps even back around the Cambrian. So they’d essentially be algorithm based robots. Also imagine certain synchronous neuron firing in some of these creatures that at times create a phenomenal EM field (whether in the form of “pain” or whatever). Furthermore this should be epiphenomenal since it would have merely emerged by chance in them. Then given that these non-conscious machines have various deficits, let’s say such an experiencer would at times be able to affect the brain to make certain choices (like “stop the pain” or whatever). Theoretically this phenomenal mode of function must have helped survival and so evolved to be given progressively more phenomenal input, processing, and output components, and eventually to a human level.

In McFadden’s theory, when light enters the eye for example, this incites certain synchronous firing that thus create EM field energies above what’s standard (so no cancelation), and the field becomes the phenomenal experiencer of that light information. It’s the same for everything phenomenal, like hunger, a memory, a thought. and so on. Notice that there should be no binding problem here since it would all exist in a sufficiently complex unified EM field . And for example when you decide to do something, theoretically this would occur by means of ephaptic coupling, which is to say your EM field would affect neuron function to move the associated muscles the way you decide.

On electromagnetic consciousness interference, yes that’s a good point. In one of McFadden’s papers however there’s a nice paragraph which goes through the physics detailing why these tiny energies in the skull shouldn’t even remotely be affected by standard EM fields. If he’s wrong about this I presume someone knowledgeable in that regard would complain. Furthermore this gave me an idea about how to conclusively validate or refute his theory. I suspect if asked, scientists could figure out how to cause tiny charges in someone’s head that are around the parameters of typical synchronous neuron firing. Thus subjects ought to be able to report if anything seems phenomenally strange while various otherwise undetectable charges are being fired.

Back in the early days, probably in a 2001 paper, McFadden mentioned how his theory conforms with global work space proposals, given that EM energies from various parts of the brain could instantly affect each other. Apparently GWT theorists didn’t want to tie themselves to a potentially disprovable idea however, and so remained on the information processing alone side.

On IIT, Eric S has done quite a bit with it. The best I think came after Tononi decided that he didn’t want his complex phi calculation to continue supporting notions of consciousnesses within consciousness. So he decreed an exclusion where only the highest phi would be conscious. Schwitzgebel then observed that it ought to be possible for a US election to integrate enough information to strike us all non-conscious, and yet still function the same as before in service of that greater consciousness!

Given how little frustration you display, it surprises me that you say you aren’t a happy person. We should show respect for people who we disagree with? I call such rhetoric “Gandhi style”. Given its effectiveness, it amazes my how few employ it.

Tim Smith said...


I've looked further into CEMI, and like all the theories, it has that fuzzy step somewhere accompanied by the thought bubble - and then a miracle happens. I'm not above attributing resistance and capacitance a role in affecting neural outcomes, but the order of magnitude we are discussing here, even for very proximate neurons, is marginal and dwarfed by even more proximate glia and chemical processes.

This is cool, but cool is not good enough - it has to be plausible. I don't think CEMI passes that test, not as a fundamental concept of consciousness. Thanks for advocating this here. It is always interesting to read things I don't understand which is just about everything.

Respectfully I will remain a most unhappy if open-minded Gandhi,