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Regarding this New Scientist article: Metaphysics special: What is consciousness?

It contains this strapline: “You may know beyond a doubt that you exist, but your ‘I’ could still be an illusion“.

(Note that I haven't subscribed to New Scientist so haven't read the full article - but I've seen this notion in many other articles with no deeper explanation).

My thoughts are that an illusion is subjective- that is: it has to be observed for someone/thing to be 'fooled' by the illusion, meaning there's an observer, so we're back to square one in that there is an "I" (the observer).

That is: consciuousness being an illusion is irrelevant.

Could anyone give a brief explantion whether/where I'm going wrong? Or point me in the right direction?

Thanks

  • Illusion is a bad word; in some places in philosophy it means less permanent... – Mozibur Ullah Sep 6 '16 at 9:15
  • In this case they might be discussing the lack of a unitary I, as in Hume ... difficult to say without more detail. – Mozibur Ullah Sep 6 '16 at 9:15
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    You can see Consciousness for an overview as well as Personal Identity. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Sep 6 '16 at 9:25
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    "Illusion" simply stands for "not what you think". "Rainbow is an illusion" does not mean that the phenomenon is not real, only that if you assume it to be a solid thing over there you'd be disappointed. Similarly if you assume that consciousness is a thinking thing in there, as New Scientist takes most people do after Descartes. – Conifold Sep 6 '16 at 17:31
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    The strapline states that your 'I'; could be an illusion, not that there is no observer. It is suggesting that the observer is not your little 'I'. It is a finding of those who explore consciousness fist-hand is that the 'I' of our everyday sense of self is not real. The personal ego would be a construct built on a deeper layer of consciousness for which the subject/object distinction is an illusion. Schopenhauer calls this deeper form his 'better consciousness'. . – PeterJ Jul 28 '17 at 13:08
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Based on the little information in the freely accessible part of the article, it looks like the author is referring to bundle theories of the self. The illusion in question isn't that we are conscious at all, as you pointed it out, for there to be illusion there has to be consciousness in the first place. Instead what is illusory is that there must be a unique self, or 'I', undergoing the conscious experience. Bundle theorists believe that there is no real self, that instead the combined experiences, perceptions and memories lead to the illusion of an 'I' that is experiencing them.

The strapline you mention:

You may know beyond a doubt that you exist, but your ‘I’ could still be an illusion

Is a reference to DesCartes's "I think, therefore I am". Descartes tries to prove that using introspection, the only thing we can be certain of is that we have a mind. I can doubt everything but the act of doubting itself, and for there to be doubting there must be a doubter. Per Descartes' reasoning (see the second part of this answer for a detailed explanation), the very act of thinking requires an "I" to do the thinking. The fact that "I" think is proof that "I" exists. But critics of DesCartes argue that all he has proved is that thinking (or doubt) is real. The "I" that does the thinking can still be an illusion, a epiphenomenon arising from the collection of thoughts and perceptions which are not driven by any concrete central ego.

To put it in your words: Although it has to be observed for someone/thing to be 'fooled' by the illusion, this something that is fooled can be a collection of perception of ideas, not necessarily a central numerically identifiable ego.

The idea of a bundle theory is ancient, dating back to the time of the Buddha, see the concept of anatta.

David Hume later brought the concept into Western Philosophy. In his Treatise of Human Nature he says:

"we are never intimately conscious of anything but a particular perception; man is a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement"

William James and Bertrand Russel subscribe to similar views, see Bertrand Russell's analysis of mind.

A contemporary philosopher who also subscribes to this view is Daniel Dennett, who proposes a bundle theory of self in his book Consciousness Explained and talks about it in a now famous TED talk.


An additional clarification: One might argue that this difference between a bundle of thoughts and a central 'I' is mere word play, like someone saying there is no brain, only a collection of interconnected neurons.

The difference between between the bundle theory of the self and more traditional views of the self is that for bundlers, if a person's memories and perceptions of the bundle are removed one by one until all are gone, there will be nothing left at all of the person. If we were somehow to copy an entirely different set of memories and perceptions into that person's body, they would no longer be the same person. Personal identity doesn't exist independently of the bundle.

Those who hold more traditional views of the self on the other hand see that there must be some central locus of consciousness which is independent of the memories and perceptions it experiences, so that whatever it is (the soul? the brain's operating system? the mind's Aristotelean essence? ...) still remains and that person can still be identified with the person they were before the deletion of their memories. Even if we copied over a different set of memories and perceptions, we would still have the same person who just happens to be experiencing something new.

Presumably, when DesCartes proved the existence of the "I" in "I think, therefore I am", he meant the "I" to be independent of the memories it experiences.

  • This is a great answer, thanks loads for the info and links. I'm wondering whether the place I'm "going wrong" in my question is to misunderstand what is meant by consciousness. I had interpreted it to mean the very nature of the 'I' which is even able to misinterpret the world (as in the TED talk, whcih is ace). That is: doesn't matter if my brain is fooling me regarding my perception of what's in front of me: there's still a "me" to be fed the (duff) info. Is the 'me' I'm talking about there termed a consciousness or is there another name? Ego perhaps? – user2808054 Sep 9 '16 at 17:36
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    @user2808054 - Yes, there is your ego, and usually you call this your 'I'. The article is suggesting that this egoic 'I' is a mental construction that is overlaid on your real 'I', which is not at all what you think it is. Standard stuff for the Perennial philosophy. The 'me' you speak of would reduce to the 'I Am' of pure nondual awareness. That is to say, at the deepest level your 'me' would also be my 'me' and all phenomena would share this identity. – PeterJ Aug 3 '17 at 10:41
  • +1 for that explanation, thanks loads @PeterJ – user2808054 Aug 9 '17 at 14:40
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People who hold this view, such as Susan Blackmore, argue as follows :

Whenever I ask myself "Am I conscious?" the answer will always be "yes". Since we always answer "yes" we leap to the conclusion that we are always conscious. But what about those times when I am not asking myself this question.

Here, the argument is that when we are not asking ourselves this question, there are no contents of consciousness and no-one to experience them. The brain simply carries on doing multiple things in parallel, as in Dennett's multiple drafts theory, and none of what the brain is doing is either in consciousness or out of consciousness.

The next time we ask "Am I conscious?", a now, a stream of experiences, and a self who observes them all appear together, but a moment later they are gone. And again, the next time you ask, a new self and a new world are all concocted.

If you then conclude that you are always conscious by relying on metaphors such a streams, theatres, and spotlights, then you only dig yourself deeper into this confusion.

Thus, the conclusion they draw is that consciousness is a delusion.

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There is a very fundamental Wittgenstein-ian problem here; words are only given meaning by the objects/feelings/ideas which they describe. We're using the term "consciousness", but what exactly does that mean? First of all, there is not a universally accepted definition of "consciousness", and even if there were, I'm not sure that it would be one that is useful for humans to reason about, given the popular definitions that are fluttering around today.

One of the most popular definitions is something along the lines of "consciousness is defined as the experience of what it is like to have sensation, emotion, thoughts, etc...". Ok, now what are sensations? Emotions? Thoughts? Oftentimes people will say "they are all parts of the experience of consciousness", and now we have a meaningless loop of a definition, akin to "a guitar is an instrument, and an instrument is a more general case of a guitar", except we have more observable information about guitars and instruments, but do not have much of a clue to reason about "consciousness". As Wittgenstein said in his Tractatus, "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent", meaning that if we want to ascertain some higher truth about some subject, we must reduce it to logic. We have an idea of the sort of thing that the term "consciousness" refers to, but we don't know how to approach it analytically, therefore we cannot make any reasonable conclusions about it (yet).

For the sake of discussion, let's not worry so much about what's been said in the previous two paragraphs. This isn't too bad to do, because the argument I'm going to make is suitable for the fuzzy definition of "consciousness" that I'd mentioned at the start of the second paragraph.

So, what the hell does the person who wrote that article mean by "You may know beyond a doubt that you exist, but your ‘I’ could still be an illusion“? My understanding is that they're referencing something similar to "The Matrix" (movie), where one thinks one's sensations and perceptions occur in a spatiotemporal world (for a logically sound, but controversial, definition of "world", see again Wittgenstein's Tractatus), a world which is the boundary of all things that could possibly exist; yet one day one is shown that this world is just a simulation, our world W is just a subworld of another world W1, which may be a subworld of another world W2, etc. My interpretation, in summary, is that what we perceive to be "absolute reality" is maybe not so absolute after all.

The paragraph above was a more metaphysical interpretation. For a more existential interpretation that deals directly with sensation and perception, look up "brain in a vat thought experiment". It is the existential analogue of the metaphysical interpretation above.

A quick synopsis, a tl;dr if you will: We need a well-defined, universally accepted notion to which this term "consciousness" refers, and shouldn't make universally accepted conclusions based on anything else. Ignoring this, the "illusion" we're describing is that our supposed "objective reality" isn't necessarily all there is, and our world may be part of a higher world, which is part of an even higher world, etc.

  • I think maybe you've nailed it. The 'where I'm going wrong' seems to be my assumption of what 'conciousness' is. I'd been orking with something like "aware of ones self" which I know if fraught with complicatons, but I mean the funadamental ability to experience 'stuff' regardless of how it's fed to us (traditional senses / some other way of experiencing that we havent discovered).. – user2808054 Dec 16 '16 at 10:40
  • I noticed some other answers refer to conciousness as being how we experience the world. I';d already got as far as the W, W1 W2 etc notion, and that our experience of what we call reality could easily be just some illusion. I see the term 'consciosness' as beeing much deeper than that, with a 'realm' of only ones self (then comes the discussion abotu what 'self' is). I could ponder about this all day .. let's have a beer and chat about it :-) – user2808054 Dec 16 '16 at 10:42
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Without the complete article, it is difficult to understand exactly what is meant by the statement your "I" could be an illusion. However, the concept that consciousness is an illusion is generally called epiphenomenalism. The best way I know to describe the idea is by analogy to watching a movie. You might identify with the main character, even to the point of nearly experiencing what the character experiences. But you actually have no impact on what the character does.

I personally find this view difficult to make coherent. The explanation of any seemingly conscious activity --posting on stack exchange, for example --is necessarily more complex to explain without consciousness than with it.

  • I don't think the issue is epiphenomenalism per se. See my answer. – Alexander S King Sep 7 '16 at 18:32
  • You may well be right about the referenced article, but I think this addresses the actual question the OP drew from that article's excerpt. – Chris Sunami Sep 7 '16 at 18:54
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If you ask yourself "am I conscious right now ?", what exactly to you examine to answer this question ? Personnally I understand it as "is there an "I" who experiences the experience ?". Or for example, if you ask yourself "why was I born in this body rather than another one, there are 5 persons in the room currently, and I experience everything from the perspective of that person called David, why not from the perspective of that person called Sarah ?". This "I" is what I think most people consider conscousness, not the body itself, not the mind itself, but the ability to experience all that. About all this, personnally I think the following: If we were "not conscious", we think we should be like deterministic machines, taking input and transforming it into output. We would process things without the need to feel them. But we think we are more than that, because we are not deterministic, but can make decisions to affect reality, we have free will, feelings, and we experience things. So we are machines in a sense, but we also have something more. If this is what you call consciousness, then it can be seen as an illusion in the sense that that "more" that we have IS also the deterministic machine. Free will is deterministic, and our feelings ARE the processing that the machine does. If you assume that a computer is not conscious, no matter how complex or "intelligent" it is, if you ask him the question "are you conscious ?" what should he perceive so that his answer is "no I am not" ? Should the answer not always be yes ? Then of course, you can adopt the view of panpsychism, saying that indeed the computer is also conscious eventhough it is a machine. But to me this does not mean that we have discovered some immaterial consciousness in computers that we did not know before was there, we are just playing with the definition of the word consciousness. But in the end it is only a word. And I don't think there needs to be consciousness for information or illusions to exist. You can ask a non conscious computer if, according to the way he perceives things he thinks he is more than just matter, and if he answers "yes", then he is "experiencing" an illusion. And it is in principle possible to program a very complex intelligent computer so that he "thinks" about the problem and draws this conclusions. And concsiousness can be an illusion if you think we are just that, complex machines answering "yes" to this question.

  • This answer could use some paragraph breaks -- and maybe a little more in the way of spelling out why you think this is a persuasive answer to the question – Joseph Weissman Aug 27 '17 at 17:13
  • (Welcome to Philosophy, by the way!) – Joseph Weissman Aug 27 '17 at 17:13
  • This is a great answer, I think you have struck to the heart of things. One part I found hard to folow: "he thinks he is more than just matter, and if he answers "yes", then he is "experiencing" an illusion" <- wouldn't that mean 'he' is conscious? Why is that an illusion ? – user2808054 Sep 13 '17 at 10:27
  • Also agree re paragraphing etc, but thanks for this answer – user2808054 Sep 13 '17 at 10:27
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If you continue to analyze anything, you will find its name, form etc. become meaningless or illusion. That is, that thing becomes illusion. There is Pure Consciousness 'behind' what we call consciousness. Everything except Pure Consciousness is an illusion. Since there are not many people who realized this truth, what the majority says seems to 'win'. In other words, those who realized this truth won't try to confuse anybody. He does not crave for blessings or expect praise from others. Questions and answers become meaningless in that Non-dual illusion-less 'state'. You may also try to find out why people call them 'the enlightened ones'.

So, 'there is' consciousness free from illusion. (Actually the usage--'there is' is incorrect in this case. I used it just for emphasizing the idea contrary to the main idea in this question.)

See this one also

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Consciousness is something that knows "I AM" ALSO "I IS" as we usually refer to it as MY EGO etc. Consciousness doesn't work as in it uses mind, it becomes mind when deeply thinking about it, you don't see memories when you are lost in them, you become them. So consciousness exists as one or the other cognitive instrument. While it can also exist beyond cognitive instruments, thats when it says I AM and that's when it also sees that ALSO "I IS". We are not what we "think" we are. And what is this this consciousness, it should actually be addressed as Him. So consciousness is not an illusion, what it "thinks" is...

  • Hello and welcome to philosophy.SE! Do you think you could provide any links or quotations to support your post? As you have written it now, this is mostly just you stating what your opinion on the subject is. That is totally fine, you are free to do so, but your answer will be much better recieved if you have some sort of support for your opinion, otherwise it comes off as being too objective to be considered a good answer on a Q&A site (which strives for as objective as possible answers). Have other philosophers argued what you have? Which ones in particular? – Not_Here Aug 4 '17 at 18:25
  • These are my personal experiences and this information is contained in the literature of Sanatan Dharma(Religion). In subjects like consciousness personal experience is much more valuable then text because consciousness is not a subject which can be understood like other subjects. Mind is a faculty used by consciousness hence consciousness lies beyond the capacity of mind to understand. Mind cannot explain emotions fully let alone consciousness. So yes there is literature available but I speak from experience. – Ashish Shukla Aug 5 '17 at 2:51
  • You don't seem to answer the question. – Keelan Aug 5 '17 at 6:59
  • So the answer was consciousness is not an illusion, illusions happen to consciousness. Again mind is below consciousness you will not be able to arrive at a conclusion through "intellectual" discourse. Consciousness in its pure form is "experienced" by itself, it is not "understood" by mind. Consciousness is EVERYTHING. You NEVER understand Zero, Infinity "intellectually" you develop a feel for them similarly consciousness, you'll have to experience it, know it intuitively, not intellectually. Intellect is made to work with finite it's intuition that works with infinite. Hope that helps... – Ashish Shukla Aug 5 '17 at 16:36
  • Ashish - I had trouble understanding your answer, but your recent comment started to make more sense. Could you amend you answer to be more clear ? – user2808054 Jul 18 '18 at 12:07
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Consciousness is an illusion

To put it simply and to answer your direct question. Consciousness is an illusion onto itself. The illusion is of a very clear picture of a "never ending" story we call life, but in reality Consciousness is fragmented and can and does misinterpret (to put it plainly) Reality. To give a few examples anecdotal examples every time you go to sleep, There is a break in your Consciousness, and every time you hear a noise that isn't there or mistake a word for something else or misinterpret an optical illusion you brain feeds your consciousness a wrong answer that you would swear is true.

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    I didn't downvote, but your answer doesn't seem to demonstrate any familiarity with the subject matter. – Eliran Sep 6 '16 at 17:40
  • How can I be more clear, I really know about the subject I just tried to be very simple about it. – Josh Miller Sep 6 '16 at 17:49
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    If you're experienced with the subject, you can demonstrate that through a thorough treatment of the issue. An oversimplified answer doesn't really help anyone understand any better. – commando Sep 6 '16 at 23:23
  • I didn't downvote either - but it sounds like you're talking about your brain (perceptions, working out what your senses receive etc) feeding mi-sinformation to your consciousness (whatever that is) is the illusion. However I'm asking about consciousness itself, being an illusion. Or have I misunderstood you ? – user2808054 Sep 9 '16 at 15:44
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Scientists have come to the conclusion that humans are biochemical machines. As a species, we form a network of machines. As a planet, we form an even bigger network... etc... with the biggest network of them all being the universe itself.

Yes, the universe itself appears to be nothing but a fully deterministic network of machines... like the Internet... where everything that happens at time T is completely determined by what happened at time T - 1... and everything that happens at time T - 1 is completely determined by what happened at time T - 2... etc.

This leaves little room for "free will" as it is traditionally defined. And without "free will", what does it mean to be "conscious"? What does it mean to be an individual? What does it mean to be "you" if every decision, every emotion and every thought you ever had is just the consequence of a long chain of events that goes back to the beginning of time (if there's any beginning at all)?

So, basically, the reason scientists and philosophers say "consciousness" is an illusion, is because our thoughts and feelings don't seem to be able to have any impact on changing the world around us. "We" appear to be mere passengers in our own body, under the illusion that we are its drivers.

Here's how Austin philosophy professor David Sosa explains it :

In a way, in our contemporary world view, it's easy to think that science has come to take the place of God. But some philosophical problems remain as troubling as ever. Take the problem of free will. This problem has been around for a long time, since before Aristotle in 350 B.C. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, these guys all worried about how we can be free if God already knows in advance everything you're gonna do. Nowadays we know that the world operates according to some fundamental physical laws, and these laws govern the behavior of every object in the world. Now, these laws, because they're so trustworthy, they enable incredible technological achievements. But look at yourself. We're just physical systems too, right? We're just complex arrangements of carbon molecules. We're mostly water, and our behavior isn't gonna be an exception to these basic physical laws. So it starts to look like whether its God setting things up in advance and knowing everything you're gonna do or whether it's these basic physical laws governing everything, there's not a lot of room left for freedom.

So now you might be tempted to just ignore the question, ignore the mystery of free will. Say "Oh, well, it's just an historical anecdote. It's sophomoric. It's a question with no answer. Just forget about it." But the question keeps staring you right in the face. You think about individuality for example, who you are. Who you are is mostly a matter of the free choices that you make. Or take responsibility. You can only be held responsible, you can only be found guilty, or you can only be admired or respected for things you did of your own free will. So the question keeps coming back, and we don't really have a solution to it. It starts to look like all our decisions are really just a charade.

Think about how it happens. There's some electrical activity in your brain. Your neurons fire. They send a signal down into your nervous system. It passes along down into your muscle fibers. They twitch. You might, say, reach out your arm. It looks like it's a free action on your part, but every one of those - every part of that process is actually governed by physical law, chemical laws, electrical laws, and so on.

So now it just looks like the big bang set up the initial conditions, and the whole rest of human history, and even before, is really just the playing out of subatomic particles according to these basic fundamental physical laws. We think we're special. We think we have some kind of special dignity, but that now comes under threat. I mean, that's really challenged by this picture.

So you might be saying, "Well, wait a minute. What about quantum mechanics? I know enough contemporary physical theory to know it's not really like that. It's really a probabilistic theory. There's room. It's loose. It's not deterministic." And that's going to enable us to understand free will. But if you look at the details, it's not really going to help because what happens is you have some very small quantum particles, and their behavior is apparently a bit random. They swerve. Their behavior is absurd in the sense that its unpredictable and we can't understand it based on anything that came before. It just does something out of the blue, according to a probabilistic framework. But is that going to help with freedom? I mean, should our freedom be just a matter of probabilities, just some random swerving in a chaotic system? That starts to seem like it's worse. I'd rather be a gear in a big deterministic physical machine than just some random swerving.

So we can't just ignore the problem. We have to find room in our contemporary world view for persons with all that that entails; not just bodies, but persons. And that means trying to solve the problem of freedom, finding room for choice and responsibility, and trying to understand individuality.

So what IS consciousness, then? What's the point of being passengers in our own body? How CAN we make sense of consciousness in a deterministic universe? Well, in the model for consciousness that I personally apply, consciousness is merely a product of complexity and connectivity. In this model, consciousness is little more of a side-effect to that complexity and connectivity.

A direct consequence of this, however, would be that EVERYTHING in the universe is conscious, albeit to varying degrees and structured in many layers of consciousness. I used to refer to this as a Matryoshka model of consciousness, but it's really just nothing but Animism... or Pantheism... which are just different perspectives on the same fundamental concepts of consciousness. I elaborate on this in greater detail in my article The Atheistic approach to God… or how to bridge the gap between Atheists and Theists.

Note that I'm not arguing that this model MUST be true and is the only acceptable model of consciousness. It's just A model and THE model that I personally find making more sense than any other models I've looked into. However, I by no means want to even remotely give the impression that this model is to be considered a 100% accurate representation of "consciousness". While scientists are pretty conclusive on the universe being deterministic (this, I believe, is no longer a matter of opinion), the very nature of "consciousness" still remains a matter of speculation.


Some additional sources on the illusionary nature of free will :

  • "Basically, scientists have come to the conclusion that humans are biochemical machines" does not really do right to the debate. Also, references are lacking. I'd propose "Some scientists claim ...". Same objections for sentences like "Yes, the universe itself ...". Then: how is free will "traditionally defined", according to you? A reference is missing. That paragraph touches upon a variety of topics but does not explain anything, nor does it provide argumentation for the next paragraph ("our thoughts and feelings don't ... have any impact") which is unfounded as it stands. – Keelan Jul 28 '17 at 9:32
  • @Keelan : What you do mean with "references are lacking"? More than have of my answer is a quote from a philosophy professor who addresses the same points in greater detail. How many more sources do you need for something this self-evident? Also, it's not that SOME scientists make that claim, but there is literally no scientific data whatsoever that suggests otherwise. The ONLY reason to reject a deterministic universe is religious prejudice, really... – John Slegers Jul 28 '17 at 9:44
  • @Keelan : With the "traditional" definition of "free will", I'm refering to the notion that we are not passengers of our bodies but rather drivers. This, I believe, is pretty obvious from the rest of my answer. And no, it is absolutely NOT unfounded that our thoughts and feelings don't have any real impact. That's a direct implication from the universe as a whole being deterministic. Your - obviously religious - denial of determinism doesn't make it any less factual! – John Slegers Jul 28 '17 at 9:47
  • I am not denying anything, I am trying to show you that your answer is poorly written. One quote at the end of the answer is hardly helpful. It would be much more explanatory if the text of the answer would be interleaved with the quote, to show how the two relate to each other. Also, that one quote cannot really be the source for the claim "scientists have come to the conclusion that ..." as it only refers to one person. – Keelan Jul 28 '17 at 9:53
  • @Keelan : I added (1) multiple sources explaining why free will is an illusion and why we are just biochemical machines as well as (2) a very personal Animistic/Pantheistic perspective on how to make sense of consciousness in a deterministic universe. I don't think it's a good idea, though, to split up Sosa's quote into pieces, as it breaks up what IMO is a pretty powerful & concise narrative into pieces that aren't supposed to stand on their own... and that's just something you don't do! – John Slegers Jul 28 '17 at 10:13

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