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Episode #181 ... What if consciousness is an illusion?

2023-06-23 | 🔗

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Hello, everyone, I'm stephen west. This is philosophize this thanks for making the podcast possible for the last ten years anniversary was a week ago going to keep doing my best to create something here that adds value to your life. The people around you thanks to everyone who contributes and keeps us a free resource for everybody that wants to access it. People on patreon, Patreon, dot, com, slash philosophize, this philosophize, this dot org for everything else, could never do this without all of you. So thank you, quick update, and I will give you the abridged version of it here, but I'm kind of tired of not posting episodes of this progress is frequently I'd like to be posting. One story short. It's really just been a matter of poor planning by me. I I just may actually be the worst person at estimating what thirty minutes of a podcast discussions going to look like today's episodes. A perfect example of that this was supposed to be an episode on illusionism as an answer, the hard problem, as well as a discussion on free, will being an illusion that was gonna, be thirty minutes of talking in my head
ended up being an hour and a half, and then for the last two weeks, I've been sitting here, trying to cut things out, trying to make it into an episode. I do want to do that anymore, there's too much good stuff that I'm cutting out, I'm just gonna to post more episodes of the podcast, so in the interests of giving you people more as well as in others, the benefit of maintaining my sanity? Today's episode is gonna, be on allusion, ism and the other what I did on free will hard determinism- susan, wolf laplace- are released that here in about a week anyway. I hope you have a great weak and I hope we love the show today. So throughout the last couple episodes we ve been doing on the philosophy of mind, there's been an idea that we ve reference multiple times and really does glossed over. It is something that's practically self evident. The idea is that when we think about consciousness, we can split into two different types: there's access consciousness on the one hand and phenomenal consciousness. On the other. This what we ve been saying when it comes to access consciousness, that's the stuff. We can explain with neuroscience things
memories, information processing our field of visual awareness, we can clearly explained a bit about how all that stuff works. But in this conversation so far what keeps on being said is ever we can't seem to explain its phenomenal consciousness. You know that subjective experience that underlies conscious thought that it feels like something to be me there's this idea that this phenomenal consciousness is something separate, something fundamental something in a category all its own. That needs to be explained. The idea is you can explain a lot of stuff about access consciousness, but you can't explain phenomenal consciousness, at least not yet. But if you are good materialist, listen to the discussions on the seriously far and you're sitting in the back of the room being super patient, not saying anything trying to be respectful to all the other ideas being presented. Maybe there's a party has so far. That's just been boiling inside cars are waiting for the part of the show where we actually are going to call that giant assumption that's being made into question because a materialist might say sure phenomenal consciousness,
is pretty mysterious and all, but does not necessarily mean. That is something that needs a further explanation. This is a good question. What is the difference between explaining all the component parts of our subjective experience again the thoughts, memories, information processing? What's the difference between explaining all that and explaining phenomenal com? this in itself like what does not even mean that's country you saying. Well, you can expect in the delicious waffle com. You can explain the creamy chocolate goodness inside you could explain the rainbow colored sprinkles, but you can't explain the Scream cone in itself now. Can you at a certain point. What are we even talking about anymore is phenomenal consciousness, really Something that's entirely separate that needs to be explained. Maybe it doesn't need to be explained. Maybe phenomenal consciousness is less a thing in itself
more a sort of attribution. We make about a particular intersection of those component parts that we can study and explain now, obviously, there's a bit to clarify their and going where's unpopular arguments as to why that might be the case will take a good portion of the episode here today, but may be a good place to start is to ask the question if the hard problem of consciousness is being able to explain why it feels like something to be me and your solution to that is that maybe don't even need to explain it. One thing you're gonna have to explain no matter. What is why it seems to most people in today's world. The phenomenal consciousness is something that needs to be explained right before we begin and the serious we didn't episode on susan song, tat and the power of metaphor. We casually using conversations, and we talk about how these metaphors actually go on, to have a pretty huge impact on the way we contextual eyes things in our lives, while the philosopher susan blackmore, and apparently I only cover female philosophers by the name of susan or simone,
the show, but anyway susan blackmore, huge player in these modern conversations about the mysteries of consciousness, and she thinks it if its difficult for some the rat their brain around the idea that phenomenal consciousness is not something that's conceptually distinct. It may be the metaphors about consciousness, that we use in everyday conversation that are directing the way you think about consciousness into a particular lane. That's incorrect, for example, there's a way that people think about consciousness. That's tragically common in today's world, it's become known as the cartesian theatre, so cartesian, obviously referencing descartes and one day carter rise at his substance. Dualism worthy mind is something totally separate from the body. This event in the history of philosophy goes on to change the way the people start to see their conscious experience. They start to think well what I am, but I must be- is I'm this conscious creature sort of perched up here inside of this head and I'm a centrally sitting in a theater looking out through a set of eyes which are kind of like the screen and a thing,
and on the screen. What I see is the outside world. Now nobody actually believes this is what's happening. Every person on this god forsaken planet knows that there isn't really a movie theater up in their heads but hearing and using this metaphor does shade the way the people see their own conscious experience, the cash use of the metaphor allows people to smuggle in assumptions about their subjective experience that we really are, no evidence to be assuming, for example, when the mind and body is totally separate, maybe becomes easier for people to believe that there are spirit, that's inhabiting a body. Maybe it just makes it easier for people to view their subjective, phenomenal consciousness as something separate from the body that needs to be explained in itself whatever. It is, though, the point to susan black moors at the metaphors. You use have an impact on your intuitions about consciousness, and she thinks there several other exam,
pulls the phone to the very same category is the cartesian theatre. How but the idea that there is a unified single stream of consciousness that your experiencing right now these stream being the metaphor, their susan blackmore, ass a single, unified stream, really the way that you experience your conscious thought like when you really pay attention. Is that how your existing moment to moment she says most likely. The only reason people see their consciousness in terms of a stream is because of the specific way the people are often asked to observe their own consciousness. There's a biased built into the way that we're checking in how to people typically do it well they'll, take a moment to stop what they're doing and they'll ask themselves. What does it feel like to be me right now? They'll pay attention the listen, try to come up with an answer to that question and, though realised that this particular set of thoughts, feelings and perceptions that it feels like to be you in that moment, but then that person can wait for an hour come back later, NASA very same question in a different moment. What is it feel like too?
me right now and lo and behold, a totally different set of thoughts, feelings and perceptions come up and what we often do as people at that point is we feel in that empty space between those two moments, with some ethereal stream of consciousness that we assume must have system between the two, but at some other level rationally. We know that for the whole time that we weren't doing this accounting of what it feels like to be me? We know that there are tons of different unconscious met. A process is going on all do in their own things, sometimes interacting with each other. Most of the time not, we know that our experience of consciousness is just directing our attention to one piece of our mental activity or another and that all those pieces of mental activity keep on operating, whether we're focusing on one of them are not so is there a specific location where there's some sort of collective stream, where all this stuff is bound together holistically? Is there any good reason to assume that it needs to be that way? Could it be
the continuity of this mental activity is more of an illusion than it is. The reality and if the sounds impossible at first think of other illusions that we know are going on in the brain. Think of how any single sector of the brain creates a similar sort of illusion memories. For example, we know the different parts of the brain are responsible for different types of memory, semantic memory and frontal cortex episodic memory in the hippocampus procedural memory in the cerebellum. All these different areas work together in concert, it's all seemingly unified, like when somebody cuts me often traffic and I'm choosing a reaction. I dont hunches lee? You know travel down to my cerebellum and say hey toward a million years ago. How did my lizard grandfather react when another lizard cut him off and traffic? No multiple different parts of the brain are coming.
Gather in creating an illusion of continuity, and the same thing goes for our visual experience of the world. The same thing happens with our emotions. Here susan blackmore saying that the traditional metaphors we casually throw around about consciousness Even with just a little bit of careful observation of your own experience being someone up in a thief, it inside of your head with a unified continuous. dream of your own consciousness. This isn't even how our experiences seem now, it should be said if you were sufficiently committed to the process you could absolutely carry on in life, with a complete lack of self awareness fuelled by the metaphors of pop psychology and movies and tv shows
You could deftly live in a state of illusion about all this, but that doesn't make it right and what happened she asked when those metaphors go under impact. The way we conduct science or break things down, philosophically she says, quote: neuroscience and disciplined introspection give the same answer. There are multiple parallel processes with no clear distinction between conscious and unconscious. Once consciousness is an attribution, we make not a property of only some special events or processes. Notions of the stream contents, continuity and function of consciousness are all misguided, as is the search for the neural correlates of consciousness. End quote the more you think about the illusions that
Brains create, for the sake of simplicity, the more the question starts to emerge. What if there is no centralized headquarters of the brain where the subjective experience of you is being produced? What of consciousness is an emergent property that only exists when there is a very specific organization of physical systems going on their people. That believe that phenomenal consciousness is an illusion. There often called illusionists, and what someone like that may say, is share fully acknowledge their other theories out there. That may ultimately explain phenomenal consciousness but isn't it also entirely possible that what it feels like to be? You is an illusion, created by several distributed processes of the brain that are running in parallel, multiple different channels, exerting I will take his influence on a variety of subsystems, of the brain and at these subsystems talk to each other. They compete with each other. They I've been flow between various states of representation, but that these different draughts of cognitive processes all come together to create a type.
Simplification of what's going on in aggregate, and that simplification is what you experience. As you I mean we have our five senses that help us meet the external world, and they do so in a way that often crude and incomplete. Could it be that we, similarly heavy crew, misrepresentation of our own brain activity that similarly allows us to be able to function efficiently as a person. If you are looking for another metaphor, to apply here that in illusionist might say, is probably better for people to think of themselves in terms of It's not going to lead us down that rabbit hole of the cartesian theater is that we should think of phenomenal consciousness as being similar to a user interface or a desktop on a computer. The idea is what is the desktop of a computer, while it's a bunch of simplified icons that are on a screen, that allow you to essentially manipulate electrical voltage going on between transistors on the computer hardware, but, as you are pushing the buttons channeling this electricity in getting things done on the computer, you don't actually need to know
the thing about the complex inner workings of how the software and hardware are operating. The philosopher, Daniel dennett, introduces the metaphor here in his famous book called consciousness, explained ninety ninety one he says quote when interact with the computer. I have limited access to the events occurring within it. Thanks to the schemes are present. Patient devised by the programmers. I am treated to an elaborate audio visual metaphor and interactive drama acted out on the stage of keyboard mouse and screen. I user and subjected to a series of benign illusions, I seemed able to move the cursor, a powerful, invisible servant to the very place in the computer. I keep my file and once that I see that the cursor has arrived there by pressing a key, I get to retrieve the while spreading it out on a long scroll that unrolls in front of a window at my command, I can make all sorts of things happen inside the computer by typing in various commands, pressing various buttons, and I dont have to know
details. I maintain control by relying on my understanding of the detailed audiovisual metaphor provided by the user illusion, in quote. So. If we take this metaphor seriously, then the idea that you're some sort of privileged observe or of everything that's going on inside your mind. That starts to seem like it's just wrong to Daniel. Did it we don't know what's really happening at the deepest levels of our brains. We only know what seems to be happening. We are constantly acting in certain ways, do and stuff and then, after the fact, making all kinds of reasons for why we acted in the way that we did point? Is you don't to know everything that's going on at every level of a computer to be able to, for example, drag a file that you don't need me more into the trash can on your desktop. You just drag the file into the trash can on this convenient intuitive screen
in fact you can make the argument that, knowing about all the information being processed at other levels would get in the way you being able to get things done. That are useful but, as has been said many times before, to relate this back to our subjective experience of consciousness to an illusion, We have to acknowledge the fact that there is no more a trash can inside of your computer screen, as there is a separate, phenomenal subject inside of your brain. That needs to be explained. That is an illusion, but you have Daniel than it refers to as an edited digest of events that are going on inside of your brain. So again, just to clarify and illusionist doesn't doubt the existence of access, consciousness there not saying that the outside world is an illusion, just the phenomenal representation, a brain activity, just the subjective view that expiring,
since the world phenomena. Logically, the philosopher Keith frankish, gives the example of a television set to describe the type of illusion that they're talking about he said quote: 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: civil Early illusionists argue, you're introspective system misrepresents complex patterns of brain activity. As simple for nominal properties, the phenomenon. Haiti is an illusion and quote when it feels like something to be you these phenomena are experiencing are metaphorical. presentations of real neural events that are going on in your brain and they definitely help us navigate reality. They definitely are useful, but nothing about those phenomena offer any sort of deep insight into the processes involved to produce that experience. So in that sense they are an illusion.
and Daniel Dennett goes hard on anyone trying to smuggle in any more magic than needs to be brought in to explain consciousness. He wrote a great entry in the journal of consciousness, studies back in two thousand and sixteen and it was called illusionism as the obvious default theory of consciousness now you getting out with that title. Why should consciousness being an illusion, be the default theory that we should all be starting from both impairs the possibility of consciousness being an illusion with another kind of illusion, the kind of illusion that you'd see in vegas at a magic show, because what happens at a magic show well, there's an enormous amount of effort put on by the magician that you're watching to trick you into thinking that what you're saying is real you're watching the magic show from a very specific point of view in the audience carefully selected by them dish and to limit the information you have? They got lights and smoke and music to distract you
their easy we're in some kind of ill but dazzled, cowboy costume, which, like they gotta, get spirit halloween there their poor assistants dressed, and god knows what to distract you and when they do the trick. and the allusions finally complete and then your sittin there amazed wondering as to how they define. The laws of nature and actually sod someone in half and put them back together in front of you. Imagine someone Sitting in the crowd and the next day, the writing a review about the show in their like. Well, I guess every We thought we knew about. Science needs to be rethought. This man is clearly a wizard. He clearly is outside the bounds of natural constraints that we thought existed it's time to rethink our entire theoretical model. Daniel Dennett says who would ever take that person seriously they'd be laughed off the internet if they wrote that and rightfully so Similarly when it comes to these modern conversations about consciousness, why would we ever assume that are in Higher theoretical model is flawed. By would we, soon the supernatural. Why wouldn't we assume that anything that sea,
magical or mysterious, definitely has a natural explanation and that we just don't understand it yet you only saw a magic trick from a single angle like sitting in the audience of a theatre. It would be silly for us to assume that there wasn't a different perspective available. That would show us how the trick was done. We only really see the quality of our subjective experience from the angle of introspection. This is why, to Daniel Dennett the default position. We should all be starting from the most parsimonious, explanation frames three that contradicts everything else. We know is that it's an illusion, it's funny, because it's an argument coming from a place very similar to wear a pan, cyclist might becoming from, but its arriving at a totally different conclusion. Pen psychic might say that Don't yet know enough about the human brain to write off the possibility that consciousness existed some level underneath here's an illusionists position that saying yes, we certainly haven't been doing science long enough to know everything about the brain,
and think about the low hanging fruit in the sciences that could potentially explained this mystery, if only we have some more time to study it more than that, though, to an illusionist, they also want to consider that maybe there's something about the nature of the illusion that we're experiencing that's not fully explainable by studying the physical properties of the brain may be studying the illusion itself is where we should be focusing more of our attention. But all that said, there's no shortage of people out there that have problems with saying consciousness is an illusion. For example, the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, who, by the way fund trivia fact, as the only person other than philip golf, we ve ever interviewed on the show all the way back in the plume series, I e once wrote it article we talked about how illusionists them as an answer to the hard problem of consciousness is something that he thinks heavily relies on the specific depth
mission you give as to what an illusion is or what consciousness is to explain what he means. Let's go back to the metaphor about the icons on the computer screen mass where people you. She says this metaphor that Daniel did it presents in consciousness. Explained is a powerful metaphor when it comes to describing the relationship between phenomenal consciousness and the underlying neural machinery that makes it possible its great? But what he can't seem to understand is why, anyway, whatever call what's going on there in allusion. Why use the word aloof when you hear the word illusion. He says you think of mine trickery, smoke and mirrors, but that's not what I when it comes to the user interface on a computer, he says quote: computer icons, cursors and so forth are not allusions their causally f, just representations of underlying machine language processes. End quote what he's getting it Is it there's no illusion going on here? There is a connection between the underlying processes of the brain and our phenomenal experience of it.
If it were truly an illusion, there would be no real connection. Says. If you want to use that same logic, would you say that the steering wheel of your car is an illusion I mean when you're driving down the road and you turn the steering wheel. You're, not aware of all the complexity of everything the car is doing all the internal communication going on to be able to turn the car and whatever direction you're going. Does make it an illusion when you turn the steering wheel left in everything, moves that makes the cargo left now the steering wheel is causing connected to the underlying machinery? And Steering wheel makes it possible for you to actually be able to drive the car efficiently. Why would you ever choose the word allusion to describe what's going on their mass, but piggly you? She thinks there's an easy trap for someone fall into living in today's world. He calls it a sort of reductionist, temptation. We come from a long history in the sciences, a progressively reducing things to a deeper more fundamental level of their component parts and in the asylum
it is usually been that if you can find a lower level of description about something, for example, if we can explain what phenomenal consciousnesses with a neurobiological explanation, will then that x, donation must be more true than anything going on at a more macro level at the level of consciousness that we experience every day? It must be a more fundamental explanation and therefore a better explanation: you'll see the same kind of thinking going on when someone assumes that the atoms that make up and People are more real in some sense than the apple in macroscopic reality, the assumption being that the apple as we experience it,
it's some kind of an illusion created by our flawed senses and that it somehow less valuable, but this whole way of thinking he says is unworkable. We ve learned over the course of thousands of years of trend of study the things around us that different levels of description are useful for different purposes. He gets a series of examples here he said quote. If we are interested in the biochemistry of the brain, then the proper level of description is these sub cellular one taking lower levels, e g, the quantum one as background conditions. If we want a broader picture of how the brain works, we need to move up to the anatomical which takes all previous levels from the sub cellular to the quantum one as background conditions. But if we want to talk to other human beings about how we feel and what were experiencing, then it's the psychological level of description, the equivalent of did its icons and curse.
Is that far from being illusory is the most valuable end quote? Reality plays by different sets of rules at different scales, and different scales of reality are useful for different time. Some inquiry when you're going about your everyday life. Do you assume that the ground is solid or do you the lower level of description of the atomic level, where the ground is actually ninety nine point: nine percent empty space. So when it comes to consciousness if we're going to say that a neurobiological description of what's going on, invalidates the experience of what's going on at the level of subjectivity that subjectivity but an illusion. Then why stop at dinner biological level? He says why not say that nerve? Funds are actually an illusion because they are ultimately made up of molecules. Why not say Molecules are illusions because a really made up of corks and glue once you can do this in. in italy and maybe on a more general note just when it comes to this lifelong process of trying to be as clear thinking of a human being as it can possibly be. Maybe part of that whole process is accept,
The fact that there is no single monistic way of analyzing reality. That's the ultimate method of understanding it maybe understanding reality just take some more pluralistic approach. Maybe getting as close to the truth is we can as people takes looking at reality from many different angles at many different scales, and maybe phenomenal consciousness is an and scale of reality that we need to be considering so from Daniel bennett and Keith frankish, offering it take on how consciousness might be an illusion to suit. black more offering a take on why the illusion of consciousness is such a compelling trap to fall into? I think if anyone you're in a conversation with calls himself, an illusionist, and you know what you're talkin to David Copperfield. I think you're gonna build up and why somebody may think about consciousness in this way, and this is the point in the conversation where we come to a bit of a crossroads, same crossroads at we ve seen with other theories of consciousness so far there
good reasons to believe the phenomenal consciousness may be an illusion. There are good reasons to doubt that fact, as we talked about at a certain point in these conversations, you'll have to just choose to believe in something and then deal with the prescriptive implications of believing after the fact and one of the ones with illusion is and in particular, as you can start to wonder the more you think about it, how much conscious this being an illusion, but really have an impact on anything going on in your everyday life or your relationship to society. But if that were the case, how much would that really change to actually pretty interesting to consider how much the passive billy of consciousness being an illusion, directly, meares other unsolved conversation
in the philosophy of mind, more broadly like, for example, the ongoing debate about whether free will is an illusion. Next episode, we're going to dive into it, one of the most requested topics in the history of this podcast free will free, won't hard determinism and the implications of all of these. When it comes to how we structure our societies keep your eyes open for it, it will be out very soon thanks to everybody on Patreon and as always, thank you for listening. Talk to you next time,
Transcript generated on 2023-06-25.