“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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Crazyism and Consciousness

This week I attended a talk sponsored by the Center for the Explanation of Consciousness at Stanford University on “Crazyism about Consciousness and Morality,” by Eric Schwitzgebel. Eric is a philosopher at the University of California at Riverside. I’ve appreciated his work for some time, and I quote him in Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You.

“Crazyism” about consciousness is the claim that to understand consciousness we will need to accept some idea that currently seems bizarre (bonkers, ludicrous, off the wall, ‘round the bend) and that has not yet been proven to be true. We do not yet know which crazy idea about consciousness will solve its deepest mysteries. We may not have even thought of it yet! But until we accept it, we will be totally unable to understand conscious experience.

As Schwitzgebel wrote in Perplexities of Consciousness, “it became evident in the late twentieth century … that all metaphysical accounts of consciousness will have some highly counterintuitive consequences. … Something apparently preposterous, it seems, must be true of consciousness.”*

Eric told us that he likes to open up new possibilities, to expand the range of alternatives. Many philosophers try to do the opposite. They concentrate on eliminating incorrect ideas, so as to zero in on The Truth. I tend to do this myself. I want to keep “cutting to the chase,” pushing to the bottom line, aiming for the bullseye. This attitude is often helpful, but Schwitzgebel’s work helps keep me from being too confident about my own pet theories.

I haven’t space to recap the arguments he marshalled for crazyism, but they were impressive, and I mostly agree with them. In my own work I’ve emphasized the idea that we make crucial mistakes in understanding our own minds, and that these errors make consciousness seem stranger than it really is. More broadly, we need to re-evaluate the relationship between:

What’s so

Our beliefs about what’s so

The words we use to express these beliefs

Many of our beliefs about consciousness are based on introspection. If there’s something kooky about our concept of consciousness, perhaps something has gone awry in our introspection-based judgments. So in what ways does introspection inform us about consciousness, and in what ways does it mislead us? In Your Living Mind I wrote:


For now, it seems likely that we usually do well at detecting, recognizing, and noticing changes in conscious sensory perceptions, including particular qualia. Sometimes we also make helpful comparisons among qualia. But we often make mistakes about other aspects of our experiences. Here are some errors that are particularly common and pernicious:

  1. Confusing our experiences with our judgments about experiences
  2. Thinking introspection reveals the internal structure of experiences
  3. Thinking introspection reveals the essential nature of experiences**


What do you think? By re-assessing introspection can we deliver ourselves from crazyism about consciousness? Your comments are welcome!

Roger Christan Schriner

*Schwitzgebel, Perplexities of Consciousness, p. x.

**Schriner, Your Living Mind, p. 155.

An Aggravating Mystery Named Mary

For the past few weeks I’ve been posting comments about some of the deepest mysteries of consciousness. I’ve been focusing particularly on “qualia,” the qualities of sensory experiences such as colors, sounds, tastes, and pains. In 1982 Frank Jackson published a paper called “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” following up in 1986 with “What Mary Didn’t Know.” In the past three decades more than a thousand scholarly papers and several books have responded to these articles. Jackson’s two little essays seem to have hit a very big nerve.

Jackson eventually decided that his argument was flawed, but many believe he was right the first time and should never have recanted. So here is Jackson’s conundrum, as I understand it:

Imagine that we can peer into the distant future, hundreds of millions of years from now. Science has advanced so far that many fields of study are essentially complete. And biotechnology has expanded our memory and intelligence so that a single individual can understand everything there is to know about some complicated subject. One of these people is Mary, a neuroscientist who knows all that can ever be known about color experiences by studying their physical aspects. Mary has soaked up everything about the physical aspects of color perception that books, teachers, and information technology can possibly tell anyone – but Mary has never seen a color. She grew up in a black-and white room, she was prevented from looking at her own skin, etc. Then one day she is released from her colorless home, free to see the whole range of hues for the very first time.

Let’s say that the first colorful thing Mary sees is a garden full of dazzling red roses. And here is the crucial question: When she sees a red rose for the first time, does Mary gain new knowledge? Jackson claimed that she does, and he cooked up the Mary scenario because at that time he was a dualist. Dualists believe that mind and matter are two very different sorts of stuff, and Mary helped Jackson argue that mind is not matter. He claimed that after her release Mary gains new knowledge over and above the complete physical knowledge she already possessed. She learns what colors are as we experience them.

If all things are physical, including our visual experiences, and Mary already knew everything about the physical aspects of color perception, then she would not have learned anything new when she walked into that garden. But if she did learn something new when she actually experienced color, then our experiences of color are not physical. They are not made of matter, and do not occur within the brain. This also implies that qualia in general are not physical.

“Physicalism” (sometimes called materialism) claims that everything that exists is made of physical matter, and so any facts about things that exist are facts about physical things. But Jackson’s argument implies that knowledge of physical facts is not complete knowledge, because after her release Mary learns new facts over and above the complete physical knowledge she already possessed. Therefore, physicalism is false.

So what do you think? Was Jackson’s argument correct? If not, what’s wrong with it?

Perhaps more importantly, do you see why this thought experiment is so challenging? Why has it stimulated so much discussion? When I have led workshops for the public on consciousness, many participants have a hard time understanding that it’s the qualities of conscious experience that are difficult to explain physically. Until one sees the depth of this problem, the mystery of consciousness may seem soluble, even trivial. Soluble it may be. Trivial it’s not.

Roger Christan Schriner

Opening a Window into Philosophy of Mind

No doubt there are still cocktail-party conversations about Descartes, Nietzsche, and Sartre, but I wonder how many Bordeaux-sipping intellectuals discuss Dretske, Nagel, and Kripke. The relationship between academic philosophy and the general public is nearly non-existent. Professors mostly speak to each other, in a technical language full of confusing terms with multiple definitions – “qualia,” “intentionality,” “representationalism,” “epiphenomenalism,” and so on. A few, such as Daniel Dennett and Nicholas Humphrey, have written for a wider audience, but most seem comfortable remaining within their own ivory towers.

I have been a member of the American Philosophical Association for nearly 25 years, reading books and professional journals and regularly attending conferences and colloquia. So I have spent years as the proverbial fly on the wall, listening to professorial interchanges within these lofty retreats. I am impressed with the need for competent philosophical analysis, and one of my life goals is to open a window into contemporary philosophy of mind for interested non-philosophers.

But I have sincerely wondered whether this is possible. When I tell people about my book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You, I cannot sum it up in a sound bite. In the book itself, it takes the Introduction and the first five chapters just to explain the key problems.

Last Sunday, however, I had a very encouraging experience. I presented Part One of a workshop called Your Mysterious Mind: New Insights into Baffling Enigmas at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. The program concludes with Part Two on February 15. About 35 showed up, an excellent turnout for an early Sunday afternoon program, and participants seemed interested and engaged.

It was especially heartening to see that some attendees had an intuitive feel for the problem of consciousness and its possible solutions. One person (“K”) dealt with Frank Jackson’s Mary-scenario by proposing what academicians call the ability hypothesis – after seeing colors for the first time, Mary acquires new abilities but does not acquire new facts. “M” suggested that sensory experiences are memories, perhaps implying that they involve cognitive responses to recent (not current) perceptual inputs. And “E,” who has a strong science background, wondered whether some consciousness-conundrums are merely pseudo-problems. I could imagine Daniel Dennett cheering her on: “Right! There isn’t any special Problem of Consciousness. There just seems to be.”

I’m under no illusions that conveying contemporary philosophy of mind will be easy, but I am now more hopeful that my project will make a positive difference.

Roger Christan Schriner

More on the Elusive NCC

Earlier this month I discussed the difficulty of finding the NCC, the neural correlates of consciousness. It is extremely hard to know which aspects of a brain’s activity constitute (or generate) conscious processes and which are the unconscious accompaniments of our conscious experiences. Those who are interested in this problem may want to read “Why the Neural Correlates of Consciousness Cannot be Found,” by Bernard Molyneux (Journal of Consciousness Studies, No. 9–10, 2010).

Molyneux asks whether we can discover “the perfect correlate of consciousness – the neural events that occur, in both normal and abnormal circumstances, when and only when consciousness is present. However, consciousness correlates not only with the NCC but also with its causes, its consequences and with other associated states. Hence, to determine the true NCC, we need to drive these states apart to see which one consciousness tracks, by holding one constant while obliterating its usual correlates”(p. 169). I don’t think we need to “obliterate” any brain states to study consciousness, but I agree with Molyneux that it is very hard “to distinguish the ‘one true’ NCC from closely associated phenomena” (p. 169).

I’m not ready to give up on finding the NCC. So many times in the history of science some pundit has declared that we will never be able to discover such-and-such, and 50 years later we do. And Molyneux does seem to admit that there’s a ray of hope: “… the problem demands a greater appreciation of when a seeming dispute between NCC researchers cannot be empirically settled, and calls for a more perfect philosophical explication of what exactly it is that we can hope to find when we set out to look for the (rather than a) neural correlate of consciousness” (p. 169). Very true, and this is an example of the practical relevance of philosophy.

Roger Christan Schriner

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: