education philosopher

Can We Really Call Consciousness an Illusion?

Posted in Mind, Philosophy by KevinCK on June 18, 2009

After writing the previous post, calling into question whether neuroscience can inform educational practice, I began doing a little bit of research on the philosophy of consciousness (one of my old favorites). While reading through a book blurb for Daniel Dennett’s book Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, I rediscovered one of my pet peeves: the assertion that the mind and/or consciousness is an illusion. Here is the blurb that got me going:

 Like a persuasive magic show, consciousness fools us into believing that the brain’s seamless illusion is real, even though consciousness is a purely biological phenomenon.

Arguments that consciousness/the mind are illusions generally point towards the fact that thoughts, feelings, etc, are not objectively existing things (that can be observed by someone using their five senses). Therefore, since consciousness/the mind ARE those subjective experiences, these entities are illusions in that they don’t objectively exist.

I can see at least something in this point, but I do not agree with it. When we say that something is an illusion, we are saying that it doesn’t exist in any objective sense and that while it may appear to, that is only because “it” is “fooling” us into thinking that it is there. At first glance, consciousness seems to be like that.

But there is another thing that I think is necessary for something to count as an illusion – something that does not apply to the mind. It must be able to be stepped back from. In order to say that the bent twig in the water is an illusion brought about by the manipulation of the twig’s image in the water, the twig must be able to be pulled out of the water. In other words, to say that a thing is an illusion, we must be able to compare it with the reality that is being covered up. Quite literally, we cannot do this in the case of the mind.

Of course, here is another thought experiment: say that a person suffers from a mental defect that causes her to see a dog’s image whenever a car is present. We can safely say that her seeing a dog instead of a Honda is an illusion. Of course, she can’t step away from her illusion to see the hidden reality. But aren’t we justified in saying that hers is an illusion despite the fact that, to her, it is reality? And isn’t the mind something like that – us feeling something that objectively is not there – something we cannot step back from?

Here is the problem. We can call her seeing a dog rather than a car an illusion because we can – even if she can’t – step back from it. We can see the reality even though she can’t. (Of course, whether her reality is simply different from ours is a subject that would take us far afield.) The problem is that in the case of the mind, NO ONE can step back from it!! Not even for a second can we step out of the mind to see if it is an illusion in the same way seeing a dog rather than a car would be an illusion. Not even Dennett himself can step out of what he calls an illusion (begging the question of how he could know the mind is an illusion at all!).

What I think Dennett and others really mean when they say that the mind is an illusion is (a) that the mind is not an objective property in that it cannot be experienced from outside of the indivdual experiencer; and (b) that it doesn’t exist in an objective sense.

But who says that in order to be real, it has to exist in an objective sense other than those who define the word “exist” only to pertain to objective properties? I know it sounds strange (and even I have a queesy feeling saying so), but there is no good reason to say the mind doesn’t exist just because it can only be experienced subjectively. Yes, I am a materialist same as many of you, but I cannot fathom why something as vivid and intractable as the mindshould be called an illusion simply because an outsider cannot experience it. We may as well say that time is an illuison also, as it too is a thing that can only be experienced by the experiencer.

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  1. David said, on June 21, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    I’ve always thought that sounded like a strange claim, too. It’s difficult to interpret because “consciousness” can mean many things. It can refer to continuity of consciousness (the sense that I am who I was a second ago), self-awareness (being able to talk about and reason about myself), etc., or something else that I’m still not sure how to define clearly.

    I’ve also seen “illusion” used not to mean something that doesn’t objectively exist, but something that isn’t what it appears to be. I think that may have something to do with what Dennett means. From what I’ve seen of his interests and field of expertise, I’d guess he’s talking about something like the sum of our sensory perception rather than “the hard problem of consciousness”. He talks a lot about the filling in your brain does in peripheral vision and memory, and how many of the things you directly experience aren’t really there. Maybe I’m way off track, though.

    I do really wish that people could agree on some more specific terminology, at any rate. I scanned through a collection of various papers called “The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness” and I didn’t have a damn clue what the authors were talking about half the time. It seems like it causes a lot of confusion between experts where they use different terms and argue past each other, or rediscover the same point over and over in different terms.


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