Sunday, February 9, 2020

on illusionishm

friends & readers of this blog will understand that i'm terrible at catching my own typos. but the title here isn't one of those. this post really is about illusionism (without the 'h'). someone asked me in person recently to clarify whether i have become one of those folks. so i feel i should write this...

illusionism - without the 'h' - is the idea that consciousness is an illusion - our conscious experiences aren't what they seem like to us.

of course, philosophers argue over different versions of illusionism.

on some extremely strong version that i don't think anyone endorses, consciousness doesn't really ever happen. it's an illusion in the sense that it is non-existent in reality. we only mistakenly think we are conscious. but we are never really conscious at all.

on what is more standardly called strong illusionism, phenomenal consciousness is not real. but consciousness happens. it just doesn't involve phenomenal conscious experiences as such.

on weak illusionism, consciousness just isn't *exactly* what we think it is. it may not involve things like 'qualia', but phenomenal, conscious experiences are real.

now, many of my non-philosopher friends may be surprised: isn't 'qualia' the same thing as conscious experience? no they aren't quite the same. this may be a good 20 minutes video intro to this. well worth your time.

from there, you see the problem gets hairy. what exactly is phenomenal consciousness? can you deny the existence of that, and yet hold that there is something it is like for you to have conscious experiences? yada yada......

that's where the issues seem a bit too much verbal for me to get really interested. i'm not a real philosopher after all. but i can say, i think qualia, defined in the traditional, technical sense, don't exist. but it makes sense to ask people what it is like to have certain experiences. they can compare it with other experiences they've had. so tasting wasabi is a little bit like tasting hot pepper, at least more so than like tasting wine. tasting horseradish is a bit more like tasting wasabi (they aren't the same!) than tasting hot pepper. hearing a cat meow is a totally different experience altogether, etc.

and then for some brain processes, there is nothing it is like to have them going on in our brains. asking people what it is like to have them would draw a blank. most often we don't even know they take place.

but does it mean that this 'what-it's-likeness' implies phenomenal consciousness? well, that depends on how you define phenomenal consciousness i guess. and i feel i'm out of breath already....


so without knowing which notion of phenomenal consciousness one adopts, i don't know if one should consider me a strong illusionist. one may point to a citation for a definition, but just because there's a reference doesn't mean the notion is entirely coherent and stable. so i'm not sure.

but like others have pointed out, weak illusionism sounds too weak. and it's more than just a matter of how it sounds, i worry that it misleads.

to my very own mind, the real 'strength' of illusionism, like any view or doctrine, has something more to do with what it can *do*, rather than just what it denies as real. as soon as we said that qualia isn't real, it may make sense for us to develop a positive, detailed, and plausible story of why so many great thinkers have thought that qualia existed. what in our cognitive machinery has lead to such systematic bias? *that*, to me is why illusionism is interesting and powerful.

contrast this with the other popular way of dealing with the apparently weird properties of consciousness within a physicalist framework, phenomenal concept strategy. there, things get rather geeky pretty quick. and i still ain't so sure what scientific good can come out of it.

and by scientific good, i mean, we need to be able to do some work within the vocabulary of cognitive neuroscience, to make things seem less weird, more understandable. it's no good saying that consciousness just *is* so and so physical stuff. if we can't give a functionalist / cognitive explanation of consciousness, that is to admit that cognitive neuroscience would fail as a complete science of the mind. and let's face it, you aren't gonna declare its failure with something as nebulous as your introspective intuitions. this is like calling for a revolution with a fan club of one, and no weapons. the philosophy gods can decide whether you should be made a saint in an afterlife, but what's certain is that you'll never make it in this world. science will go on the way it does with or without you.

so functionalism *has* to be the working hypothesis, to those of us who like 'working' at least.

but just because we can give a functionalist account of something doesn't mean we accept the thing as entirely real as it seems to be either. first there is a sense in which that a heart is real and an algorithm isn't quite as real, even though both can be functionally defined. second, even if an algorithm is real it may not be exactly as it seems. it may have properties that are mistakenly construed by the agent running the algorithm itself.

so, it's complicated. which is why i advocate not getting so hung up about what exactly do we deny in illusionism for now. it may suffice to say: if consciousness is exactly as it seems to some people, then there may be metaphysically challenging stuff like qualia. but consciousness may not turn out to be *exactly* as it seems. it may be *somewhat* an illusion, at least in part. it's illusion-ish. so things may not turn out to be so challenging after all.

but what exactly do we mean it is illusion-ish? do we mean phenomenal consciousness isn't real?

my point is, i don't know. let's find out. i'm tempted to say i don't care but let me just say i don't know for now, coz i do care in the long run. but let's work out the positive story first, re: how we may explain in cognitive terms, why we may be mistaken about the exact nature of our own conscious experiences. let's focus first on things that we can all agree may be unreal, like qualia as defined in the traditional, technical sense. from there, it may be easier to work out what we are entitled to deny, to explain away as illusory. without that positive cognitive story in concrete terms, we can't assess the *strength* of that story, and as such i just don't see much point digging our heels deeper on any position.

so that's the crux as i see it. but as to what that positive cognitive story may be, i fear it has to wait till the next time i blog again.....


so have i become an illusionist? on twitter, yes. in reality, i like illusionishm better. which is perhaps to say, philosophy is often above my pay grade.


  1. The message I get from illusionism is that it's a reminder that there's a transformation that occurs going from sense input to the mental models we consciously experience. A good example is how our visual system presents what looks like a complete picture but from studying the eye and visual processing systems we know that this is a fabrication produced by our brains. Illusionists (some of them anyway) are just saying that since most of what we sense is something of an illusion, it seems likely that our view of consciousness itself suffers from similar illusions, though we don't know enough yet to identify them specifically.

  2. Really nice post, lots of food for thought. Perhaps the most convincing account for illusionism (or illusionishm) I've seen so far.

    I wonder though if this is not a double edged sword. By declaring all philosophical considerations to be off limits, why do we still call ourselves consciousness scientists? Shouldn't we then just say, I investigate attention, metacognition, reentrant processing, verbal reports, etc.?

    My point of view, fwiw, is more or less the polar opposite of ignoring the philosophical questions. I think the main focus should be on the fundamental question 'is the mind an algorithm?' or not, and try to cash that out in experiments. If we indeed find a confirmative answer to that question, then I agree: then it's business as usual where we pin down the precise details of the algorithm, its implementation etc. Talk about mysterious 'qualia' will then quickly evaporate. Because even if they exist, they then apparently make no difference, so they may just as well be a theoretical fiction.

    1. hi Yair - discussed this a while back

    2. Ha, I see, very interesting, thanks!

  3. The first question is, "What is Consciousness?" Without answering this first question how anyone can claim it to be illusory or otherwise? All theories are meaningless "narrative" (story) only. How philosophers can talk of consciousness without discovering the cause of it?

  4. …if consciousness means awareness of internal changes then, can consciousness be illusory?

  5. Hello Hakwan,
    I have a good friend who has been featuring some of your thoughts at his blog in recent months. The latest can be found by following this link:

    Anyway, well down in the comment section I began by claiming that it’s a crime that philosophers such as Keith Frankish were wasting the time of cognitive scientists by means of this “illusionism” business. Technically its purpose is to support the position that qualia exists “of this world” from those who consider it funky, like David Chalmers. Instead of countering their kind with the extremity of asserting that phenomenal experience is “an illusion” (which of course creates a mess that then must get cleaned up), I have a different strategy.

    First I should say that I consider science to suffer today given that we do not yet have a respected community of professionals with agreed upon principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. If such a community were to adopt my single principle of metaphysics, I believe that there’d be no need for scientists to worry that qualia might not be a natural product of the brain. It reads, “To the extent that causality fails, nothing exists to discover. Thus in “science” it would be presumed that all of reality functions naturally, and because things can’t otherwise be figured out. So any theorist pitching magical notions would need to to so under something like a “science-plus” heading, thus sparing normal scientists of dealing with such ideas.

    While today philosophy often seems to obfuscate science, your post suggests to me that you’d appreciate the field providing useful principles from which to effectively do science. This should render it well within your pay grade, and who knows, our soft sciences might even begin to harden!

    1. Hmm… while the link I left above does apply, I see that it isn’t the latest, as advertised. This should be the most recent post: