Whenever, I hear someone like, say, Daniel Denett say conscious is an "illusion", I'm always left pretty stumped. Firstly, both the terms "consciousness" and "illusion" are generally left undefined, although this is more apparent with the term "illusion". With this, I have to use the default definitions of these terms, "consciousness" being a somewhat self-explanatory "state of conscious awareness", and "illusion" being "a delusion of some sort". This is really where the main problem arises for me. How can one claim that consciousness is an illusion when the concept of "illusion" requires a subject to be deluded, which the original claim actively denies the existence of? Granted, this subject doesn't have to be an "I", but the denial of any decieved subject at all seems to negate the argument itself.

The other problem I have with the claim is that it seems to contradict the fairly self evident claim that, as Nietzsche put it, "It thinks, therefore it is".

Is the claim really as nonsensical as it seems, or am I missing something big? Perhaps the definition of a term or multiple terms?

  • This is called "bundle theory of consciousness", and it does have many influential supporters, including Hume and a school of Buddhism. Your puzzlement seems to stem from the Cartesian stereotype that "thinking", etc., requires a "thinker". – Conifold Apr 6 '18 at 0:44
  • @Conifold I understand that concept, but if this claim is meant to support it then I think that it's heavily misformulated. For something to be illusory, it, by definition, requires a subject who is deluded. It is an "error in perception". If someone like Denett wanted to support the bundle theory, a better claim would be "Consciousness is not what you think it is", or perhaps, "Your understanding of consciousness is an illusion". The way the claim is originally formulated seems like it just causes unnecessary vagueness, perhaps even so that the argument is harder to attack. – Samuel Apr 6 '18 at 0:53
  • possible duplicate of How can consciousness be an illusion. – Nick R Apr 6 '18 at 3:53
  • Samuel, either we need a subject to be deluted or we need an outside observer who judges that an idea is a delusion. Plus in both cases we need "ground truth" in some form which is different from the idea, for it to be "wrong". – ttnphns Apr 6 '18 at 7:34
  • @ttnphns I agree with that statement, that's what I was trying to get across. I apologize if my argument was too convoluted to do it well. My biggest problem with the "illusion" argument is that the "illusion" of consciousness and actual consciousness would be virtually identical in a way that the word "illusion" does not need to be used at all. If it seems that I am conscious, then I am. The "illusion" does not mean it isn't real, just means it isn't non-physical and special (although I do believe it IS non-physical). – Samuel Apr 6 '18 at 7:43

I can't deny myself (the 'I' or the consciousness of being myself). Can you? If you say "Yes", you would never have asked your question. In other words, this question must be asked unconsciously. If you say "Yes" again, why can't you say the consciousness for asking this question is somewhere else? So....

One can deny everything except consciousness (though actually it is Pure consciousness).

But there is a chance for denial of consciousness until that person meets a great Guru. In other words, if he says so, that means he has never met such a person.

In short, I would say, if you try to weld the terms 'consciousness' and 'illusion' the latter burns completely without leaving out a sign of its 'particles'. Our sense organs will become useless after our death, so it cannot show you the 'real knowledge'. The real knowledge must be beyond all the knowledge acquired through our sense organs.

How can one claim that consciousness is an illusion when the concept of "illusion" requires a subject to be deluded, which the original claim actively denies the existence of?

In enlightenment, when the duality disappears, the observer, the observed and the act of observing all become one. Consciousness is not an illusion.

Is there any coherent argument in support of consciousness being an illusion?

If there is one such argument, it must never be coherent.




This phrasing is used by different philosophers for different purposes, so one must take the phrase in context. However, in general, it is used in reference to the idea that consciousness is a thing which is separable from other things.

Denett argues that consciousness does not exist except as an image which describes the interplay of events within the brain. I use the word image here to avoid the loaded term "illusion." The key factor here is that the image is a depiction of the thing rather than the thing itself. Denett would argue that if one were to take this image and look for it in the real world, we would not find it. Instead we would find the interplay of events in the brain. In this sense, I might argue that his position is that consciousness is to reality as the number 1 is to the series {1/2, 3/4, 7/8, 15/16, ...}. It could be viewed as a limit were the process to be continued, but it never actually reaches that point. In his view, the reality never quite reaches the vaunted concept we call consciousness.

In this sense, the word illusion is chosen for pragmatic reasons. It instills the correct imagery in the minds of those who believe consciousness exists. For those who agree with Denett, the word must naturally shift meaning, for there is no consciousness to ascribe meaning to the word "illusion." There may be a self-consistent viewpoint regarding how the brain really works such that that phrase is interpreted correctly, but Denett may not call this out with extra words.

Other philosophers have used this concept for other reasons. Alan Watts, for instance, argues that no self is truly isolated from its environment. According to him, there is no consciousness which can be isolated from its environment and pointed at to say "this is a consciousness." He argues that "for every inside there is an outside." Thus there is no consciousness outside or isolated from its environment.

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