What do people who say consciousness is an illusion actually mean by that statement? Are they denying that consciousness exists, or are they claiming it exists but that it is an illusion? And anyway, isn't an illusion something that happens in consciousness? I would like to be enlightened on this topic.

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    i'm guessing varies according to who says it?
    – user67675
    Oct 22, 2023 at 22:57
  • An illusion is something that happens in consciousness. Yes, I think that is about it.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 22, 2023 at 22:58
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    Please give a reference: Which people claim that consciousness is an illusion, which supporting argument do they provide? - First one needs to have the data, only thereafter one can analyse what the data mean.
    – Jo Wehler
    Oct 23, 2023 at 0:56
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    I've seen people assert that consciousness was an illusion - and after thinking about it for awhile, I was left wondering who was supposed to be perceiving the illusion.
    – Jedediah
    Oct 23, 2023 at 2:21
  • I listened to about a day's worth of lectures by Keith Frankish that were meant as an introduction to the idea of consciousness as an illusion, and at the end I still had no idea what he meant, so perhaps it was an illusion. Oct 23, 2023 at 5:55

3 Answers 3


Here's an exceprt from the 2017 BBC article, Is Consciousness Just an Illusion?, in which the view of philosopher and cognitive scientist Dan Dennett (the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University in Massachusetts), is very briefly outlined.

Consciousness is real. Of course it is. We experience it every day. But for Daniel Dennett, consciousness is no more real than the screen on your laptop or your phone. The geeks who make electronic devices call what we see on our screens the "user illusion". It's a bit patronising, perhaps, but they've got a point. Pressing icons on our phones makes us feel in control. We feel in charge of the hardware inside. But what we do with our fingers on our phones is a rather pathetic contribution to the sum total of phone activity. And, of course, it tells us absolutely nothing about how they work. Human consciousness is the same, says Dennett. "It's the brain's 'user illusion' of itself," he says. It feels real and important to us but it just isn't a very big deal. "The brain doesn't have to understand how the brain works".

Philosopher Keith Frankish (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) goes into a bit more detail in The Consciousness Illusion. I've included just a taste here, as his explanation is lengthy.

It is phenomenal consciousness that I believe is illusory. For science finds nothing qualitative in our brains, any more than in the world outside. The atoms in your brain aren’t coloured and they don’t compose a colourful inner image. (And even if they did, there is no inner eye to see it.) Nor do they have any other qualitative properties. There are no inner sounds, smells, tastes and pains, and no inner observer to experience them if there were. It is true that cognitive scientists talk of there being representations in the brain. But by this they don’t mean inner pictures or copies that we observe instead of observing the world directly. They mean patterns of neuron-firing that respond to specific features of the world and that the brain uses to construct models of its environment.


Illusionists agree with other physicalists that our sense of having a rich phenomenal consciousness is due to introspective mechanisms. But they add that these mechanisms misrepresent their targets. Think of watching a movie. What your eyes are actually witnessing is a series of still images rapidly succeeding each other. But your visual system represents these images as a single fluid moving image. The motion is an illusion. Similarly, illusionists argue, your introspective system misrepresents complex patterns of brain activity as simple phenomenal properties. The phenomenality is an illusion.

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    Re. "introspective system misrepresents complex patterns of brain activity" – Something seems topsy-turvy. The interpretation of brain activity is a nuanced accomplishment, not a misrepresentation. Also Dennett saying "It's the brain's 'user illusion' of itself", sure, the basic are automated, simplified, but careful, important thought is where analytical consciousness has its day. Oct 23, 2023 at 16:50
  • With all due respect, consciousness is a big deal.
    – Meanach
    Oct 26, 2023 at 16:13

Extracted from a Daniel Dennett (good day sir) video on consciosuness.

From a distance, a painting (forgot by whom) depicts a bridge. You can "see" people walking on it. Come closer (no, big bad lupus) and these "people" are actually blobs of paint. Blobs of paint perceived as people is clearly an illusion. That was all she wrote.

Consciousness, construed as "people" on the bridge in the painting, is just paint blobs. After all, perception is critical to consciousness, it is also a kind of pratyaksha (perception). Consciousness senses consciousness and to the extent that is true, consciousness is maya (illusion).

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    If that was all Dennet meant then I would understand and agree with it. What we see is the brain's interpretation of the information coming into our eyes. I get that. What I don't get is the further step that our experience of consciousness is an illusion. I suppose he uses the word illusion in a special sense here, but even so I can't quite catch what he thinks he means. Oct 23, 2023 at 6:47
  • And the answers to the question cited by Conifold are of no help to me. Oct 23, 2023 at 6:48
  • Ex mea (humble) sententia, the received wisdom seems to be that consciousness/res cogitans is real and stands distinct from res extensa (the brain?). That this is so is false i.e. consciousness, as nonphysical, is an illusion. More can be said. I'll edit the answer ... in a while. Oct 23, 2023 at 7:00
  • Cheers! I understand the words but don't get any helpful meaning from them. 1) We experience consciousness. 2) There is chemical stuff going on in our brains. How does 1) arise from 2)? Maybe Dennet wasn't trying to answer that question, but the answer to it is what I was hoping to hear. Oct 23, 2023 at 8:00
  • Daniel Dennett said, believe it or not, we're p-zombies. What do you suppose that means? Oct 23, 2023 at 8:11

Before declaring consciousness as an illusion , it is important to understand , what does the word “consciousness” means. Consciousness is a thought, non-physical expression of verbal communication, consciousness is a feeling , consciousness is ability to make choices, consciousness is perception. Understanding fire as a fire , understanding earth as earth , understanding water as water, understanding joy as joy , understanding suffering as suffering involves consciousness.

Now the question is : Is suffering an illusion ? Machines do not suffer but conscious beings understand what suffering is. If suffering is not an illusion then how can consciousness be an illusion ?

However because there is consciousness which is vulnerable to suffering, it can not be called self. You can not call it me , mine or myself. You presently , I guess, feel that you are seeing , you are hearing , you are tasting but none of this is true. There is sight, there is sound , there is taste but it is not yours or you or yourself. In that sense consciousness is like an illusion.

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