The Delusion of Consciousness

True nature of consciousness: Solving the biggest mystery of your mind |  New Scientist

I’ve talked a lot recently about consciousness, vaguely complaining about the vacuity of the term as it is used by almost everyone these days; philosophers, scientists, and laypeople alike. For me personally now, my frame of mind concerning consciousness is such that every time I hear people using the word, it’s almost like a black hole opens up in the sentence, only instead of sucking in light, it sucks in meaning, turning what might otherwise have been a valid, meaningful sentence into nonsense. In this article, I want to flesh out my uneasiness with this word, and, in the process, see if I can’t maybe convince you that it’s not me who’s crazy; it’s everyone else (or, if I’m wrong, at least find a few people to share in my craziness)!

The Diagnosis

There is an overwhelming temptation these days to reify consciousness; that is, to see it as some kind of existent thing. Of course, calling it existent doesn’t mean it’s physical, nor does it mean it’s fixed and/or static, nor does it mean that it must be capable of existing independently of certain physical things (e.g. brains). It just means that consciousness is a thing, and like all things, stands in need of an explanation. So, what is this reified thing called consciousness? I suspect that most people called on to define consciousness would end up endorsing something not too far removed from Thomas Nagel’s formulation that consciousness is the sense, or feeling, that there is “something it is like” to be me. This might be reducible to qualia; that is, the phenomenal ‘packets’ that make up conscious experience, or it might not. I don’t really care either way, but since I’ve already written about the delusion of qualia, I’m going to treat consciousness as if it were something different. In order to separate this ‘something it is like to be me’ feeling (i.e. consciousness) from qualia, thereby avoiding my earlier critique, the most robust argument available to the consciousness defender, I think, is to claim that qualia are the phenomenal experiences involved in sensation; things like ‘redness,’ ‘roundness,’ ‘pain,’ and so on, whereas consciousness itself lies underneath all of these as a more originary, foundational, phenomenal ‘sense’ that ‘it is like something to be me (the subject experiencing these qualia).’

The first thing we can immediately note about this definition is that it is highly ambiguous. Now, I’m not at all against ambiguity; in fact, I think most things concerning human existence are ambiguous; emotions, for example. Your love for your husband or wife is not a clearly-defined, specific, isolatable entity lurking somewhere in your psyche, nor is it a network of neuronal pathways in your brain, nor does it even mean the same thing all the time. Your love can be tinged with jealousy one day, pride the next, envy the day after that, and a hundred and one other things every other day, depending on a thousand and one variables. It is a dynamic part of the totality that you are, and cannot meaningfully be separated out from it. That is ambiguity all the way, but it’s not a pernicious ambiguity. When we say human emotion is ambiguous, all we mean by this is that it cannot be measured or quantified. In other words, our ambiguity concerning emotions does not make us wonder if they are real; it just makes them qualitative, not quantitative.

Now, the ambiguity in ‘there is something it is like to be me’ is certainly qualitative as well (shh, don’t tell Giulio Tononi that), but I would argue it’s worse than this. The ambiguity of consciousness defined like this is such that, if we actually stop to think about our lived, in-the-moment experience, consciousness may not even be real. SIILT (my abbreviation of ‘Something It Is Like To (be me)’) is so subtle, its touch so delicate, that we can, and ought to, ask if it even exists. Now, before you discount this as crazy talk or label me a consciousness-denier, hear me out. No one can reasonably deny emotions exist. Such a person would immediately be refuted by the very next feeling that assails them. Nor can one reasonably deny thoughts exist. One can argue about whether they are substantial or insubstantial, or how they arise, and many other interesting things besides, but it would be a bold person indeed to argue that thoughts are not real (how would they be formulating their argument?). Nor can one deny that perceptions exist. You can argue about the nature of those perceptions, but denying that we perceive at all would be tantamount to denying human experience. SIILT, on the other hand, can be denied without the wheels completely falling off the wagon, precisely because it is ambiguous in a way that emotions, perceptions, and thoughts aren’t.

SIILT is often proclaimed in the literature on consciousness to be the clearest and most obvious truth out there, the one thing we can’t deny. Of course it feels like something to be me. But is it that obvious? It’s certainly not as obvious and indisputable as a thought or a feeling. When I introspect on my moment-to-moment experience, I can imagine that there is a vague SIILT ‘feeling’ underneath the events that make up that experience, but it’s never indisputable, and it’s never obvious that I’m not making it up. It’s more like those subtle sensations people who believe in psychic phenomena or the supernatural sometimes imagine they feel (‘energy’ in the hands, warmth in the chakras, or a merging with the oneness of the universe in deep meditation). And, let’s not forget I’m hardly alone in questioning the reality of SIILT consciousness; Buddhists have been denying that there is ‘something it is like to be me’ (at least ‘me’ as this individual entity) for centuries, and David Hume famously noticed that when he looked inside himself, all he found was a series of psychic states arising one after the other; i.e. no extra phenomena lurking underneath, ‘feeling’ what it is like to be/have them.

The second thing about that definition of consciousness – that it is like something to be me – is that it commits us to a belief in something over and above the normal experiences of life. Now, not only do we have to account for psychic events (thoughts, emotions, perceptions, etc.), we also have to explain this other thing, this subtle ‘feeling’ that underlies them. This is precisely what it is to reify consciousness, and the consequence of this is that we are forced to abandon any attempt to explain or understand consciousness in terms of those psychic events. We can no longer look for a natural mechanism to explain consciousness, precisely because we have pre-defined (reified) it as a thing, in and of itself. The SIILT approach to consciousness holds that there is a little nugget of some extra thing in the background, a thing which, in some sense, makes me who I am, or which harbours my subjectivity. And just like that, we find ourselves right back in Cartesianism, because this is nothing more than a Cartesian Mind. Whether you think it emerges from the brain as a phenomenal ‘feeling,’ or is an eddy in a bigger sea of consciousness (perhaps a modulation of a more primordial substance) is irrelevant. Either way, you are committing yourself to some thing over and above actual events and experiences, a mysterious subject that is different from the experiences and events happening to it, a subject that can even be imagined persisting in the absence of those experiences and events. The problem with this is that it is adding metaphysical furniture to the living room of the universe. This is fine if we need it, but if we can explain human experience without appealing to some hidden, half-sensed, obscure ‘something it is like to be me’ feeling behind every event, wouldn’t it be better to do so? Following Ockham’s razor, this is precisely the position I have argued for in my last few articles.

You might want to object here that in the absence of SIILT, my experiences wouldn’t feel like anything; in other words, without SIILT, experiences would just happen without the sense that they are happening to anyone. This is totally unfounded. First, note that simply inventing a mysterious consciousness behind every event to be the locus of experience has not explained anything. Not only have we not explained how this magical thing can even be a locus of experience (the very thing we invented it for in the first place!), but now we’ve got another thing, even more mysterious than the first, to explain. This is no better than thinking you’ve solved the mystery of where the universe comes from by inventing a God to make it.

Second, if time is real, if nature is a succession of events/states in a fundamentally continuous whole, and if life is a drive towards increasing complexity (none of which require the positing of any radical entities or phenomena, supported as they are by our actual experience, physics, and evolution, respectively), I see no reason why events happening to the localised part of the universe occupied by a particular body shouldn’t be experienced by that body. For sure, as in any theory, we need some assumptions here, one of the biggest being that the succession of events/states in nature can be prolonged into each other and contracted into a single intuition (a phrase I have discussed in much greater detail in previous articles) by a complex organised whole; i.e. a living being, but the tremendous advantage to this assumption is that it works with what we know about the world, providing a mechanism that actually does explain experience, instead of simply positing a magical substance/emergent phenomenon which, like a black box, keeps all of its secrets to itself, conveniently ‘explaining’ experience without actually having to explain anything. Honestly, I can’t think of a better description of experience than a succession of events/states being prolonged and contracted into a single intuition. With this, the only genuine explanation I have ever heard for consciousness that doesn’t beg the question six ways from Sunday and then just presuppose it anyway, we can put away the chewing gum and duct tape because we just don’t need to affix any ungainly metaphysical appendages to our understanding of the world.

Options for a Reified Consciousness

If you can’t get beyond the paradigm which sees consciousness as a reified thing, crystallised in some emergent phenomenon or non-physical substance, there are four options available to you. You either deny the non-physical, deny the physical, blend the two, or become a substance dualist. I’ll work backwards through these.

Substance dualism is the full-on Cartesian position. This has very much fallen out of favour these days, principally because of the interaction problem; i.e. how can a non-physical substance interact with a physical one? This seems to me to be a pretty solid knockdown argument. I suppose religions like Christianity, which believe we are eternal, non-physical souls in physical bodies, are the last bastions for substance dualism. The main reason for this is probably that after you’ve already bought into all of the unlikely, irrational, physics-defying doctrines and myths that make up Christianity, the interaction problem is a walk in the park by comparison.

Blending the physical and consciousness would take us into either panpsychism or some kind of emergence theory. The former holds that the fundamental building blocks of matter are conscious to some very slight degree (technically, this is micropsychism). This is growing in popularity I think, but is more a position of desperation than anything else for me. There are significant reasons not to get on board with panpsychism. First, let’s be clear that it doesn’t explain consciousness at all; it just drops it into the fundamental building blocks of nature. You could argue that this is just ontological bedrock, like a fundamental force of nature or the wave function in quantum mechanics. Fine, but we still need to recognise that panpsychism hasn’t reasoned its way into this conclusion; instead, it has been forced into it because it can’t think of any way to actually explain SIILT consciousness. Second, and more worrying, you have the combination problem. How does accumulating (slightly) conscious particles get you one (highly) conscious individual? I can’t even begin to imagine what a solution to this problem might look like. Finally, there is the problem of making sense of the notion that it is like something to be an electron. I can understand the idea that SIILT consciousness is a continuum (we perhaps get a glimpse of what this might mean in those initial groggy moments after we first wake up), but it seems a real stretch to me to attribute anything like this to a single particle. After all, when I think of the SIILT continuum, I think of living beings; maybe humans at the top, then chimps, dolphins, etc., moving on down to mice, insects, and so on. I don’t think of atoms being more conscious than individual particles, and molecules a bit more conscious still, until you get to things like cells and proteins, which must be hives of conscious activity by comparison.

Emergence is the broad term I am using to define theories that make SIILT consciousness dependent on some physical process. Models like integrated information theory (IIT) and global workspace theory (GWT) belong here. They are ostensibly physicalist, but awkwardly so, it seems to me. They want to maintain that the physical is all there is, and yet at the same time leverage it to derive some non-physical SIILT ‘feeling;’ a strategy otherwise known as having your cake and eating it, too. A massive advantage to emergence theories is that, unique among all the other approaches here, these actually do move towards a genuine explanation of consciousness. If you can specify how information must be integrated to produce consciousness, then you have given a pretty decent explanation of consciousness. The problem is that they haven’t shown any such thing, and I can’t see how they ever will. The physical; i.e. the brain, and experience are certainly interrelated, but the suggestion that physical events/processes produce non-physical ones is either ludicrous (like, alchemy ludicrous), or means the physical is nothing like what we thought it was, in effect, shifting the mystery from consciousness to the physical.

The third option is to deny the physical, and this would be idealism; everything is mind or consciousness. This is the reification of consciousness on steroids. One modern name that springs to mind (no pun intended) in this category is Bernardo Kastrup. Obviously, just like panpsychism, idealism completely fails to explain consciousness. It just casually drops it into the universe on the ground floor. Instead, it purports to ‘explain’ where local, individual consciousnesses come from – you guessed it, the bigger, universe-sized consciousness – once again, without the burden of actually having to provide an explanation; i.e. explain how, in something like an inverse-combination problem, little consciousnesses arise from bigger consciousnesses (Kastrup invokes dissociative identity disorder here as ‘evidence’ it can happen, glossing over the many differences between the two, not least of which is that DID would appear to require a physical brain and body. To argue that the physical brain and body are actually mental would obviously be to beg the question; that is, presuppose the very thing that DID is supposed to justify). Then, we might wonder, if everything is consciousness, and consciousness is ‘the feeling it is like to be me,’ is the universe ‘the feeling it is like to be… something… the universe, maybe?’ The universe is a phenomenal sensation? What could that even mean? How do you get particles and waves; in other words, physics, out of a phenomenal sensation? Thus, we must suppose that the bigger ‘consciousness’ stuff which comprises the universe can’t actually be just a bigger version of the little phenomenal, SIILT ‘consciousness’ that I am. If they aren’t the same, they must be different. Different in what way, you might want to ask. But obviously no one can provide a reasonable answer to this. Any attempt to do so will be worth about as much as the rampantly speculative notions (that’s a really polite way to put that, by the way) put forth by your local psychic or New Age guru. So, long story short, we are to infer the existence of a universal consciousness on the grounds that we know local consciousnesses exist, but should we acquiesce to this, we discover that not only does this not explain how local consciousnesses ‘emerge’ from the universal one, the universal consciousness actually turns out to be something different from my local consciousness. Clearly, none of this tells us anything about consciousness, where consciousness comes from, or the universe.

Finally, we come to those who find SIILT consciousness completely untenable, and, unable to see a way around this predicament, elect to throw the experiential baby out with the SIILT bathwater. These people, unlike the uncomfortable materialists we encountered under emergence, are the true materialists. They hold that there is nothing but the physical, and anything else that appears to be going on is purely and simply an illusion. In other words, you think you are an experiencing, believing, intending being… but, in reality, you aren’t. There are two main problems with this account. First, it has to deny all psychic phenomena; experience, beliefs, intentions, etc. You can deny a lot of things that appear to be true, but these strike me as things which are not in this category. The other, bigger, problem is that the claim is pretty clearly self-contradictory. How can you think you believe something, but actually not be believing anything because belief (as something non-physical) is impossible? Thinking you believe something is precisely what it is to believe that thing. In general, physic phenomena, by their very nature, just cannot be illusory.

I’ve outlined some of the basic problems with each of these groups of ‘solutions’ to the problem of SIILT consciousness, but there is one central problem underlying each of them. That is that they all reify consciousness. They are all trying to explain how this ephemeral ‘there is something it is like to be me’ feeling can exist over and above the givens of psychic life; thoughts, perceptions, sensations, etc. But here’s the catch; if that thing doesn’t actually exist, their theories, models, and ‘explanations,’ will always be wrong. They are attempting to explain, or account for a phantom they have reified into being. It is the classic story of the dog chasing its own tail, only in this case, the dog is one of those breeds that doesn’t even have a tail!

Making Sense of SIILT Consciousness

Why do so many people believe in SIILT consciousness? Well, typically you think about your in-the-moment experience, and ask yourself what was going on in that private, inner domain that is your mind. This, by the way, is already entertaining a delusion (and it doesn’t get any better afterwards). The notion that there is an internal, mental ‘realm’ separate from the external one is a fiction I touched on in my last article; one which we don’t have the space to get into here. Ok, so you’re inside your head. What’s happening during an experience; when you’re feeling pain, for example? Well, you reason, there is obviously the pain, but is that all there is? Doesn’t the pain also feel like something? And doesn’t that feeling feel different from what it feels like to experience joy? And isn’t this true for everything that happens to me? Doesn’t thinking of what I had for dinner yesterday feel different from thinking about what I am going to do tomorrow? In fact, even when I’m not experiencing any psychic states, isn’t this feeling ‘that it is like something to be me’ still there? Then there must be something (some thing) underneath everything else in my mental life; some locus of this ‘feeling.’ This must be what consciousness, the very essence of me, is.

I maintain that this entire chain of reasoning is pure fiction. Let me attempt to paint another picture. Recall the last conversation you had with a friend. Place yourself back in that moment. What was it like? Amidst the dialogue, the speaking, and the listening, did these behaviours also feel like something? You have to pay close attention to the moment itself, not the moment as you imagine it to have been. Was there really a vague sense of your speech feeling like something as you were talking; i.e. for a little inner you holding itself back from that speech? Did the words you were listening to really feel like something, over and above the way they resonated in you, eliciting responses that you hadn’t, and couldn’t have, pre-planned? Or was there just the natural to and fro, the effortless back and forth, that characterises a genuine conversation, and nothing, and no one, else? I think if you’ve really managed to imagine yourself back in that moment, you will see that there was no phenomenal quality over and above the conversation itself. You were the words you were uttering and the speech you were hearing. The reified consciousness you may be tempted to see yourself as (an offshoot of the mythical internal domain we tend to believe we inhabit) is a delusion. When you really capture the moment in your imagination, this, I believe, is clear, but intellectually, we can’t help thinking that there must have been something it was like, and so we project into our recollections this SIILT ‘feeling’ underneath everything else; the gestures, the movements, the speaking, the thinking, and so on. Let me repeat this point because it is crucial: the SIILT feeling is not a part of your original lived experience; it gets added into the reflection, the idea, you create about that original experience.

I should also note, just in case it’s unclear, that I am not denying that the conversation felt like something. Of course it did. Experiences, sensations, feelings are all undeniably real. What I’m denying is that we need a further locus, an additional reified thing, over and above these psychic facts, in which to phenomenally situate them. The psychic facts on their own are all we need for experience. Going beyond this is both redundant, and a classic example of multiplying entities that would have William of Ockham turning over in his grave.

And so, in an exact parallel to what I have already concluded about qualia, we see that SIILT consciousness is a creation of the intellect, projected, after the fact, into our idea of our experience. Original, lived experience just has no room for mythical fauna like qualia and SIILT consciousness. However, just as we saw with qualia, it wouldn’t be correct to call SIILT consciousness an illusion; it’s as real as any other mental construct, it’s just not what we thought it was. It is, in short, a delusion.

If you’ll permit me a little levity, this whole thing reminds me of a scene from the movie Dark Shadows, in which Johnny Depp plays a vampire locked in a coffin for two hundred years, thereby missing out on some significant technological advances. When he sees a woman singing on television (the first time he has ever seen a television), he exclaims in astonishment, “What sorcery is this? Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!” Now, I can imagine explaining to Depp’s character all about electromagnetic waves, transistors, pixels, and whatever else goes into TVs these days, Depp nodding along in understanding, but then at the end saying, “Yes, yes, I understand what the TV is, but you still haven’t explained how they get the tiny songstress in there!” This is not unlike the situation I feel we are in with the SIILT defender. “Yes, yes,” they say, “I understand how perception and memory work, but you still haven’t explained how they get the ‘something it is like to be me’ feeling in there!” The moral of the story? If you’re already convinced that there is a tiny songstress in your TV, the only explanation that will satisfy is one that concludes with a tiny songstress in your TV.

Let me close this section by asking you how living things are different from non-living things. Is there a special vital force (not to be confused with Henri Bergson’s elan vital, which you may have heard me mention before) that imbues living organisms that non-living things lack? This was a common belief throughout most of human history, and it certainly seems to be true. After all, how else could you explain that special ‘some thing’ that animates matter? Needless to say, no one believes in a vital force these days; that is, no one reifies a vital force inside living things anymore (sound familiar?). What happened then? How did we solve the ‘problem’ of what distinguishes living matter from inanimate matter? We didn’t. What happened was that we realised we had been thinking about it all wrong. Living matter (made up of cells) is nothing more than inanimate matter (atoms) arranged in such a way that they exhibit the properties of life; change, growth, ability to reproduce, etc. There is nothing that needs an explanation over and above this (sound familiar?). To get beyond the flawed paradigm that resulted in the vital force, we had to clarify our understanding of biology and physics, and to get beyond the flawed paradigm that has resulted in a reified consciousness, we need to clarify our understanding of metaphysics, not simply populate it with new and wondrous fauna.

The Fifth Path

Earlier, I indicated that there are four paths one can take if one chooses to reify consciousness into a SIILT spectre; deny the non-physical, deny the physical, blend the two, or substance dualism. None of these were without crippling problems, and none of them explained consciousness in any way, shape, or form. The ultimate reason for these failures is that they are chasing a phenomenal phantom, a product of the intellect that doesn’t admit of a concrete explanation, because it is an abstract creation.

If we can free ourselves from the SIILT assumption, a fifth path to understanding consciousness opens up. Now, in light of a genuine understanding of our actual, lived experience, we can revisit the word ‘consciousness,’ and ensure a more concrete definition. We can ask ourselves what it means to be conscious, and look for an answer that actually means something. I have suggested one such answer in an earlier article. When we say we are conscious, all we really mean is that we are aware. Indeed, I believe consciousness, properly understood, is essentially a synonym for awareness. To be aware is to be conscious. Sound underwhelming? It’s supposed to. Not pseudo-mystical enough for you? That’s as it should be. We are concrete, embodied beings thoroughly and irrevocably immersed in the world. If we can’t explain our own experience in similar terms, something has gone horribly wrong.

Consciousness has been hijacked, distorted, and reified into something lurking in the recesses of an ‘internal’ mental realm. Until we change our way of thinking about this much maligned term, we will forever be looking for tiny songstresses in our televisions.

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