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 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

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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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.



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From Google:



  1. a thing that is or is likely to be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses
  2. a deceptive appearance or impression
  3. a false idea or belief.

Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained lays out his argument for how consciousness is illusory by starting with debunking Cartesian duality and concluding with an assessment of Searle's Chinese Room and addressing Nagel's What is it Like to Be a Bat? among others. Obviously any characterization of argument made over 450 pages reduced to a few paragraphs would be liable to be misleading, however:

What Dennett highlights in his book is that the uniformity of the conscious experience (what is known as the phenomenological) is itself a composition of many distinct processes that can be teased apart in heterophenomenolgical discourse. This is nothing more than what might be characterized as people sharing and reasoning through their experience as a group presuming that an individual's experience is not authoritative. This is, of course, is an accepted tenet in legal or scientific reasoning.

In fact, what Dennett repeatedly does throughout the book is to show how science, be it that of psychology or computers, shows that the human brain is composed of many subsystems that can be reasonably understood as a computer. Using these facts, he then makes an argument that subjective experience is actually a composition that doesn't neatly align with physical reality, but is rather a construction that resembles a virtual machine and that entities, properties, and relationships as traditionally perceived in philosophy fall short. He uses color as a prime example.

"Objects" don't have colors. The sky, for instance, isn't really blue. The "blueness" of the "sky" is an illusion, because "blueness" and "sky" as our subjective experience is concerned are constructions of the mind. This is not to say that EM waves don't have wavelengths, or that the "sky" isn't the atmosphere as we understand it heterophenomenologically, but rather our phenomenological experience isn't what reality is. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson call these "transactional properties", which are understood to be neurocomputational structures which associate the physical with the mental. (See Philosophy in the Flesh.)

It's a well accepted fact that your conscious experience is vulnerable to illusion, confabulation, bias, fallacy, and deception from others. To claim that consciousness is an illusion is merely to concede these, and provide a philosophy of mind that is compatible with materialist and physicalist thinking. In essence, to claim consciousness is an illusion is merely an attempt to reduce the qualia and a holistic interpretation of subjectivity to intersubjective and reproducible processes. It's an attempt of those with positivist and analytical roots philosophically to create an operational definition as other people's awareness is not directly accessible by our own (as per the problem of other minds).

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Your scepticism of Dennett is well-grounded. Claims similar to Dennetts were given by Skinner under the rubric of behavioral psychology where one supposed thinking things (res cogitans) were merely things, that is automatons, and one was not supposed to ask a man about his inner self, his telos or his intentions, or indeed how things were going with him, as one was supposed to merely observe his actions, his gestures, his attitudes and then tell him truly how things were going with him, his intentions, his purposes.

These claims were blown apart by Chomsky who pointed out the chicanery of supposing human beings were to be studied as though they were merely objects of the disinterested scientific gaze - like rocks or laboratory rats. The chicanery goes deeper as it also sullies the good name of science by a methodology that simply doesn't stand up to any scrutiny. Likewise Dennett is sullying the good name of philosophy by dogmatically flogging a dead thought to a coterie of admirers who should know better - but don't - and to a larger audience who do know better but are cowed or over-awed by his linguistic gymnastics.

Every language under the sun has the word 'I'. Self-awareness, self-consciousness exists. It's not an illusion. The only illusion here is that Dennett is doing good philosophy when he's doing bad philosophy.

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When I run across problematic statements of this sort, I always prefer to follow Wittgenstein and look for the error in language that lies behind it. This is precisely the kind of 'philosophy' he thought needed therapy more than analysis.

The first step in that Wittgensteinian therapy is to step back and consider what purpose this claim has in Dennett's worldview. I don't mean to ask what the claim means, per se. Instead, I want to think of this claim as a move in, say, an abstract, philosophical game of chess, and ask what line of progression this claim is meant to block, or what intellectual territory it is attempting to claim. Looked at that way, the purpose is almost self-evident: the concept of 'consciousness' — ill-defined as it is — has long been associated with metaphysical and religious concepts like God and the soul and moral behavior. Disposing of consciousness immediately undercuts a wide range of philosophical arguments from theology, moral philosophy, and social theory. Since Dennett's raison d'être has always been anti-Abrahamic anti-theism, this kind of claim makes perfect practical sense. Whether it makes philosophical sense is almost irrelevant, because the position is too useful to the ultimate goal of the intellectual contest to be given up without a fight. This is why he settles on the idea that consciousness is an 'illusion': he cannot deny that we experience something we call consciousness, so instead he tries to pry it away from any direct ontological referent and reconstruct it as an emergent phenomenon of interconnected organic systems.

Of course, this is just scientism: speculative philosophy based on an over-extension of scientific observations. 'Consciousness is an illusion' is no more empirically verifiable than 'consciousness is the product of a divine soul'. But even as mere scientism it creates enough ambiguity to undercut religious certainty on the matter, so it serves that purpose well.

The therapy in this case is to recognize that neither Dennett nor his opponents have any idea what consciousness is, but all acknowledge that the term points at something. The rest is merely wrangling over lexical issues: efforts to assert one formulation or another as a priori true. We can (if we choose) skip all that as contested territory, and move forward to actual substance of the game, which is over the sociopolitical balance of power between religious and secular segments of modern society.

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