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Why Would Philosophers Deny That Consciousness Is Real?

Because, says computer scientist Bernardo Kastrup, the materialism they are committed to makes no sense and that’s the best they can do

A Dutch computer scientist and philosopher who has reflected deeply on the mind–matter problem finds himself asking, how can serious scientists or philosophers convince themselves that their own consciousness “doesn’t exist” or is a “mistaken construct”? What, exactly, is thinking the thought that their consciousness doesn’t exist?

I want to understand what makes the consciousness of an intelligent human being deny its own existence with a straight face. For I find this denial extremely puzzling for both philosophical and psychological reasons.

Don’t get me wrong, the motivation behind the denial is obvious enough: it is to tackle a vexing problem by magically wishing it out of existence. As a matter of fact, the ‘whoa-factor’ of this magic gets eliminativists and illusionists a lot of media attention. But still, what kind of conscious inner dialogue do these people engage in so as to convince themselves that they have no conscious inner dialogue? Short of assuming that they are insane, fantastically stupid or dishonest—none of which is plausible—we have an authentic and rather baffling mystery in our hands.

Bernardo Kastrup, “The Mysterious Disappearance of Consciousness” at IAI News (January 9, 2020)

Kastrup (above right) summarizes some key arguments:

Neuroscientist Michael Graziano sees consciousness as “a model that the brain constructs of itself,” “as a ghostly, non-physical essence,” for efficient processing.

The problem is, as Kastrup says, consciousness doesn’t feel particularly ghostly at all, especially not in the face of pain, loss, or other sufferings. If whatever Graziano is explaining, correctly or otherwise, cannot be recognized as consciousness—as we usually experience it—it’s not the right model.

Kastrup likewise dismisses University of Sheffield philosopher Keith Frankish’s claim that consciousness is an “ illusion”: “illusionists have to account for the experience of ‘seeming’—i.e. illusion—while denying experience to begin with.”

If consciousness is an illusion, whose pain is experienced? He concludes,

My present opinion is that illusionists and eliminativists are sincere, but also so fanatically committed to a particular metaphysics—materialism—that they inadvertently conjure up, and then tie themselves in, perplexing webs of conceptual indirection, ultimately deceiving themselves. In their inner dialogue, I suspect they implicitly replace the obvious meaning of the term ‘consciousness’ with one or another secret conceptual abstraction, and then strive towards proving that such abstraction doesn’t actually exist. Well, guess what? Of course it doesn’t!

Bernardo Kastrup, “The Mysterious Disappearance of Consciousness” at IAI News (January 9, 2020)

It’s becoming clearer with each passing year that no materialist model of consciousness sheds much light. Just last week, for example, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor pointed out here that splitting a person’s brain—an operation he has done, to control epilepsy—does not split that person’s consciousness: “Patients after split-brain surgery are not split people. They feel the same, act the same, and think the same, for all intents and purposes.”

Egnor also makes a critical distinction that might clear up some confusion: Our consciousness is an illusion in one sense only. And it is not the sense that these materialist philosophers mean: It’s just this:

We are not aware of the brain processes that enable us to be conscious, any more than most of us are aware of the computer programs that make the words we read appear on the screen.

The words you are reading now are really there. They do mean something. But you may not be able to explain the all technical details in correct order by which they appeared first on the author’s screen and then made their way to yours. During most of those processes, they would not appear to be words at all, just signals.

Thus you can say, if you like, that the appearance of these words on your screen is an illusion. But that doesn’t mean that no one wrote or published this post or that you didn’t read it or that it doesn’t say what it says. That’s all real.

Consciousness, Egnor explains, works pretty much the same way:

Again, the truth is that we are aware of none of the processes by which we think, not in any primary way. We are aware only of the objects to which they point—to the tree or perhaps the concept that gives rise to the neuronal processes in our brain.

We could learn a lot by studying neurophysiology or computer science. But these disciplines won’t show that either our thoughts or the ways we communicate them don’t exist. Rather, they will help us understand the details of how we come to experience the thoughts and communications.

If anything, far from dismissing consciousness as non-existent or illusory, many other materialists are gravitating toward panpsychism, the idea that everything is conscious or that the universe as a whole is conscious.

These ideas may seem hard to believe but they make more sense than the idea that the consciousness by which we know we exist is merely an illusion—yet somehow we know we exist anyway. For one thing, we are at least allowed to believe that the minds by which we study panpsychism are real. So the possibility of actually learning something still exists, even if panpsychism is not, itself, a correct answer.


See also: Scientific American explores panpsychism… respectfully. This is a major change. At one time, a science mag would merely ridicule the idea of a conscious universe. Note: Make no mistake, panpsychism—as Goff elucidates it—is a purely naturalist view (“nothing supernatural or spiritual”). But, unlike the village atheist, he goes on to ask, but then what IS nature? Matter is all there is? But what IS matter? It turns out, no one really knows.

Panpsychism: You are conscious but so is your coffee mug


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Why Would Philosophers Deny That Consciousness Is Real?