The ability to form models of the world and other people to understand and predict their behavior can be quite beneficial for animals. The ability to react in an appropriate amount of time to what is happening internally and externally, independently of any too strict model, can be quite beneficial too.

A specific illusion of consciousness could arise in the following form: our ability to form models also gets applied to our own behavior. Just like the world around us, really fully understanding how our specific behavior arises would be an extremely challenging task. So we just form some simplified models of it, which might be adaptively improved over time, and just believe that the explanation derived from one of those models woud be the true reason for our own reactions to what is happening internally and externally.

So even if consciousness itself would still be real in the scenario described above, some of the things it believes to know with absolute certainty would just be predictions from some simplified models, so the absolute certainty would be an illusion of consciousness. Have philosophers (or other people) argued along similar lines before modern experimental psychology and neurophysics that such a state of affairs would show that consciousness is some sort of illusion?

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    You may find reality of being by Jeanne de Salzmann helpful in your question. Specifically, I find her an excellent expositor on "the recursivity of consciousness" – the fact that consciousness contains a model if itself – but simplifying and distorting
    – Rushi
    Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 10:03
  • @Rusi Wow, such deep thoughts, to help with such a concrete question. But it is appropriate, I woke up from a dream today, knew why I dreamt it, knew I would soon forget again, and was fine with it. The dream contained concrete personal fears, ones I would never dare to talk about, and prefer to not think about either. So I wrote down a concrete question, knowing that the troubling experience would soon be forgotten again. Therefore I forced it to leave a concrete trace. P.S.: I liked the CS History posts on your blog. Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 14:53
  • Thanks much your comment @thomasklimpel. We are at our truest, most authentic in (acknowledging) our dreams. And the more incoherent, shameful, nonsensical, the more true they are. All the rest is just endless recycling of others' — "borrowed thoughts". [As it happens last night I woke from a nightmare about a thief! ]
    – Rushi
    Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 15:28
  • Beyond the truth of dreams is the truth of deep sleep. From India, a modern account. A more ancient one.
    – Rushi
    Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 17:17

1 Answer 1


A specific illusion of consciousness

An illusion is defined as either an erroneous perception of reality or an erroneous concept or belief. Whichever of these two modes of illusion we may want to consider, illusion is understood as a mode of consciousness. In other words, all illusions are usually thought of as specific to consciousness!

However, there is no good reason to assume that all of the perceptions that a creature with a brain has are conscious. Indeed, our consciousness is routinely focused of a small part of our perceptions, and indeed often focused on the "perception" of the inner world of our own ideas, rather than on that of the outside world. Thus, it seems impossible to tell whether illusions are really specific to consciousness.

Acting without focusing our consciousness on what we are doing will more likely, and indeed very often, end up in mishap, if not disaster, demonstrating the presence of some error of perception or some error of belief, at some, presumably unconscious, level, and therefore the presence of some illusion. Consciousness might even be the instance of last resort to dispel illusions before any mishap could ensue.

But there is no hiding from the fact that some illusions are conscious. What is more difficult to say is whether any particular kind of illusion is specific to consciousness, since, by definition, we wouldn't be aware of our non-conscious illusions, if any.

absolute certainty would be an illusion of consciousness

Naive realism is the term used to identify our native belief, and indeed native absolute certainty, that our senses provide us with direct awareness of our environment as it really is. Indeed we mistake our perceptions themselves to be the world around us. That is, we have the illusion that our perceptions are the world around us.

Although philosophers all over the world and very early, at least in history properly so-called, have understood this illusion, we can't quite shake it off. In this sense, it seems by essence the illusion that inheres in consciousness.

As such, it is also perhaps the question that has been the most discussed ever by philosophers since the beginning of philosophy.

The more recent development of the debate about the possibility of knowledge of the material world should be seen as a mere extension of our discussion of naive realism.

The extension comes entirely with the drive to substantiate the possibility of our knowledge of the outside world. Given that we humans will always insist that we know at least some things in the outside world, many philosophers are currently trying to flesh out what such knowledge really consists of, and this even though past claims to knowledge are routinely falsified by our own current beliefs.

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