“Illusionism” – Is Consciousness Real? My Upcoming Talk in Shanghai

I’ve just been notified that my proposal for a presentation on consciousness has been accepted by organizers of The Science of Consciousness, Shanghai, China, June 5-10. As I begin to draft my paper, I’ll share some passages on this site. Here’s the abstract of my paper, Dueling Skepticisms: Strong Fallibilism Versus Illusionism:

Are conscious experiences real or illusory? In particular, are sensations and perceptions such as pains and visual phenomena actual or fictional? Daniel Dennett and other eliminativists argue that these “qualitative” sensory experiences simply do not exist. Dennett’s eliminative materialism, along with several related approaches, has now been re-christened illusionism. A recent issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies was entirely devoted to this topic, featuring a lead article by Keith Frankish.

Frankish distinguishes strong illusionism, weak illusionism, radical realism, and conservative realism. I will support a version of realism that is radically skeptical and ontologically conservative – strong fallibilist realism. Although fallibilist realism maintains that qualitative sensory experiences are introspectively accessible, it also contends that we make important errors in thinking about such phenomena. Some of these errors may generate seemingly insoluble conundrums, such as the hard problem of consciousness and various explanatory gaps.

In advocating fallibilism I will show how this approach can close two particularly challenging explanatory gaps: (1) explaining how qualitative differences among our experiences could be constituted by differences among neural states and (2) explaining how neural states could constitute any sort of sensory experience whatsoever. In dealing with the second gap, I will consider some intriguing possibilities that involve the conscious interpretation of language. I will specifically consider the conscious cognitive states within an English speaker and a Mandarin speaker when they hear, respectively, the English sentence, “Welcome to Shanghai” and the similar Mandarin greeting, “Huānyíng guānglín Shànghai.” Surprisingly, reflecting upon language-interpretation sheds light on some of the deepest puzzles about the nature of consciousness.

Roger Christan Schriner

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The Dreaded “Hard Problem”

I’ve been posting thoughts about “qualia,” the qualities of sensory experience. Qualia figure prominently in one of the most baffling enigmas even discussed, and the history of this issue is wonderfully described by Oliver Burkeman. I’ll quote some of his essay, but I urge you to read the whole thing:


“One spring morning in Tucson, Arizona, in 1994, an unknown philosopher named David Chalmers got up to give a talk on consciousness…. the young Australian academic was about to [discuss] a central mystery of human life – perhaps the central mystery of human life – and revealing how embarrassingly far they were from solving it.

“The scholars gathered at the University of Arizona … knew they were doing something edgy: in many quarters, consciousness was still taboo, too weird and new agey to take seriously, and some of the scientists in the audience were risking their reputations by attending. Yet the first two talks that day, before Chalmers’s, hadn’t proved thrilling. ‘Quite honestly, they were totally unintelligible and boring – I had no idea what anyone was talking about,’ recalled Stuart Hameroff, the Arizona professor responsible for the event. … ‘But then the third talk, right before the coffee break – that was Dave.’ With his long, straggly hair and fondness for all-body denim, the 27-year-old Chalmers looked like he’d got lost en route to a Metallica concert. … ‘But then he speaks. And that’s when everyone wakes up.’

“The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do you know to jerk your hand away from scalding water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a noisy party? But these were all ‘easy problems’, … given enough time and money, experts would figure them out. There was only one truly hard problem of consciousness, … why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? …’

“What jolted Chalmers’s audience from their torpor was how he had framed the question. ‘At the coffee break, … everyone was like: “Oh! The Hard Problem! The Hard Problem! That’s why we’re here!”’

Here’s one way of considering this issue. Suppose in the distant future neuroscience has discovered precisely which brain structures and processes are correlated with specific conscious experiences. They can even read people’s minds: Experimental subject C79 reports that she is recalling a teenage love affair. But a brain scanning machine had already printed out a report, just before C79 spoke: “subject is remembering a high school sweetheart.” Isn’t it clear that we now understand the neural basis of consciousness? Aren’t the neural structures and activities that the scanner detected simply identical to the memory-experience that C79 reported?

Not necessarily. We need to know why this configuration of neural structures and activities constitutes consciousness. “Even if every behavioral and cognitive function related to consciousness were explained,” writes Chalmers, “there would still remain a further mystery: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by conscious experience? It is this additional question that makes the hard problem hard.”*

Next: the menace of philosophical zombies.

Roger Christan Schriner

*Cited by Uriah Kriegel, Subjective Consciousness: A Self-Representational Theory, p. 271, emphasis added.

The Complexity Trap

It’s hard to prove that the conscious mind is located in the brain. One problem is that both mind and brain are incredibly complicated, and it’s hard to map one sort of complexity onto the other. Popular media sometimes imply that science has accomplished this feat, but this isn’t so.

Suppose we ask subjects to visualize a square, then a circle, then a square again, while their brains are scanned for signs of neural activity. And suppose this experiment enables us to print out colorful pictures showing that brain regions 1-2-3 are especially active while subjects visualize squares, and regions 4-5-6 are especially active while they’re imagining circles. Does this show that the experience of fantasizing squareness is located in 1-2-3 and fantasizing circularity is located in 4-5-6?

Not at all. It’s a start, but barely that, and I’ll just mention two of the many difficulties.

1. How much of a lit-up region is the experience of the item, and how much of it is a motley assortment of non-experiential accompaniments? Visualizing a square may call up all sorts of associations with square items and with the word “square” – square meal, square deal, square mile, and “you’re so square.” Perhaps activity in linguistic regions involves verbal associations only, and is never part of the mental image itself. Perhaps. But we don’t know for sure.

2. It’s also hard to know which aspects of a brain’s activity are conscious processes and which are the unconscious accompaniments. A great deal of the brain’s visual processing, for example, never reaches the level of awareness.

Someday we may be able to detect precisely which neural activities constitute, say, a visual experience of seeing a single cherry blossom, but this will certainly not be easy. Compare the task of identifying precisely which electromagnetic waves in the signal from a TV satellite constitute an image of the seams of a football being passed during the last five seconds of the 2015 Superbowl. We assume that this part of the video signal is a physical event, and our inability to precisely specify it does not make us philosophically puzzled. But the difficulty of knowing just which brain activities constitute a particular experience may make us wonder whether this experience could be in the brain. Complexity confuses us, so beware of the complexity trap.

I recall a lecture in which the speaker announced that he was going to display his model of the neural correlates of consciousness, or NCC. The NCC is whatever cluster of neural activities correlates with conscious experiences, and finding such a correlation would be a big step toward showing that experiences are constituted by neural processes. He then showed us a diagram with about 50 arrows going in all sorts of directions.

He was joking, of course, because we have no idea how to sketch the NCC. We need to remind ourselves that the brain is much more complex than we can comprehend, and that we are in this convoluted mish-mash.

Roger Christan Schriner

Your Living Mind

I apologize for neglecting this blog. Ironically, the thing that has prevented me from continuing it was the fact that I have been writing a book about consciousness! I’ve now finished my sixth and most challenging book project, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. I’ll paste text from the book’s back cover below my signature line.

It may be a few weeks before I catch up enough with mundane matters to get back to blogging, but I look forward to resuming The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters.

Roger Christan Schriner

Your Living Mind was written for several kinds of readers.
Do any of these statements fit for you?

❁ You want to develop a well-crafted personal philosophy of life. Understanding consciousness is part of that quest.
❁ You want to learn about yourself, to know who and what you are.
❁ You have been interested in the “big questions” of philosophy and psychology, and you’d like to revisit this sort of reflection.
❁ You find it fascinating to learn about the mind and the brain.
❁ You have already explored contemporary consciousness studies, and you enjoy playing with new ideas about “philosophical zombies” and other enigmas.

This book confronts the most bewildering puzzles in philosophy of mind. You will find out how dedicated scholars have struggled with these riddles, apparently without success. You will also have opportunities to reflect and experiment yourself, and to evaluate the author’s proposed solutions. Your Living Mind explains subtle ideas in straightforward language, minimizing technical jargon. Issues are clarified with illustrations, diagrams, and specific examples.

Available on Amazon.com:

The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters

This is the first entry of a new blog dealing with deep puzzles about the nature of consciousness. I will be exploring issues that will be addressed in more detail in my forthcoming book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. My main focus will be the question of whether it is possible that conscious experiences are brain events.

If you are already convinced that the mind is wedged in between our ears, don’t be too sure that this is obvious. The puzzles involved are far more profound than I realized when I first immersed myself in this issue in the early 1990’s. How could a sensuous experience – the tingle of a caress, the scent of lilacs, the sight of day-glo orange – occur within a brain? Some brilliant scholars have concluded that we can never answer this question satisfactorily.

The basis of their skepticism varies according to their theoretical orientation. But they all agree that it is extremely difficult to show that sensory experiences are brain activities in a way that makes this understandable. Their pessimism involves more than just the worry that consciousness and neural dynamics are too complicated for us to grasp at this time. They believe that understanding how perceptual experiences occur within the brain is virtually impossible in principle, either because experiences do not occur within the brain or because we can never understand how they could.

This blog will wrestle with the remarkable issues associated with this conundrum, trying to show how the conscious mind could, in principle, exist within the brain.

I would appreciate candid feedback about my ideas, partly because I realize that communicating clearly about consciousness is remarkably difficult. Whenever you read something in this blog that seems muddled or confusing, please let me know. Thanks for your interest in The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters.

Roger Christan Schriner

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