The consciousness illusion

Resultado de imagem para Detail of Picture from 8 Sides (1930-6), by Kurt Schwitters; oil and wood relief on panel. Courtesy Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Detail of Picture from 8 Sides (1930-6), by Kurt Schwitters; oil and wood relief on panel. Courtesy Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Phenomenal consciousness is a fiction written by our brains to help us track the impact that the world makes on us

Keith Frankish is a philosopher and writer. He is an honorary reader in philosophy at the University of Sheffield, a visiting research fellow with the Open University, and an adjunct professor with the Brain and Mind programme at the University of Crete. He lives in Greece. Listen here

Edited by Nigel Warburton

In the movie The Matrix (1999), Morpheus offers Neo a red pill. If he takes it, he will discover that reality as he knows it is an illusion created by machine overlords to keep humans enslaved. I am going to offer you a different pill, which – if it works – will convince you that your own consciousness is a sort of illusion, a fiction created by your brain to help you keep track of its activities. This view – which I call illusionism­ – is widely considered absurd (it’s been described by Galen Strawson as ‘the silliest claim ever made’), but it has able defenders (pre-eminently Daniel Dennett), and I want to persuade you that it isn’t absurd and might well be true. Are you ready to see how deep the rabbit hole goes?

The first task is to be clear what we’re talking about. The term ‘consciousness’ is used in different ways, and when I claim that consciousness is illusory, I mean it only in one specific sense. We can home in on our target with an example. I’ll take vision, but any other sense would do as well. Suppose you have good sight and are focusing on a red apple directly in front of you in good lighting. You are now in a certain mental state, which we can call having a conscious visual experience of the apple. You wouldn’t be in this state if you were unconscious or asleep (though if you were dreaming, you might be in a similar state), or if you had not noticed the apple, or had noticed it only in a fleeting, subliminal way. Our lives are filled with such experiences, and no one suggests that they are not real. The question is what is involved in having such experiences, and whether it involves consciousness in a more specific sense.

So, what is involved in consciously experiencing the apple? Well, lots of things. You are acquiring a mass of information about the apple – fine-grained details of its shape, colour, texture, location, distance and so on. You are recognising what kind of thing it is (a solid object, a piece of fruit, an apple, a Red Delicious) and forming corresponding beliefs (that there is a thing of this kind in front of you). You are recognising ways you might interact with the apple and the opportunities or threats it offers – what psychologists call its affordances. You recognise the apple as something you might pick up, juggle with, eat, cook and so on. You are also getting ready to react. You are forming expectations about the apple (that it won’t move or attack) and inclinations to respond to it (you might feel an urge to grab it and take a bite). Memories and associations are being evoked, perhaps affecting your mood or setting your thoughts on a different track. You don’t explicitly think about all these things, of course, but you would report many of them if questioned, and we know from experimental work that a vast array of sensitivities and associations are triggered during a conscious experience, priming us to react to future stimuli and collectively determining the experience’s significance for us.

Neuroscientists are beginning to understand the brain processes underlying all this. To put it simply, light reflected from the apple stimulates light-sensitive cells in the retina, sending trains of electrochemical impulses along the optic nerve to the lateral geniculate nucleus and then on to the visual cortex at the back of the brain. Here these signals trigger activity in hierarchically organised groups of cells specialised for the detection of increasingly complex features (edges, colours, motion, faces and so on). When you attend to what you are seeing, this visual information is ‘globally broadcast’ to mental systems involved in memory, reasoning, emotion and decision making, generating the host of effects mentioned. This process of global broadcast is called access consciousness, since it makes sensory information accessible to the rest of the mind, and thus to ‘you’ – the person constituted by these embodied mental systems. Again, I don’t deny the reality of consciousness in this sense…


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