Last Friday, YouTube philosophy channel Closer to Truth aired host Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s interview with University of Texas, Austin, analytical philosopher Galen Strawson on the question “Is consciousness an illusion?”
Is consciousness something special in the universe, its own category, irreducible to physical laws, a carrier of meaning and purpose? Or is consciousness a mere artifact of the brain, a by-product of evolution, a superstition exaggerated by human misperception? If you think or hope consciousness is special, then you should surely be a skeptic.
Kuhn began by confessing that he did his doctorate in brain science, thinking he could learn about consciousness.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn: [0:00] … I did a lot of work about the brain and enjoyed it very much. And I don’t know if I got any closer to consciousness. But what has disturbed me in thinking about it is, many philosophers I really respect are now telling me that consciousness is an illusion we should eliminate; it’s an artifact of different brain systems. So I’d like to start fundamentally, what is consciousness? Is it an illusion?
Galen Strawson: [0:44] No. It’s not an illusion and it’s actually provably not an illusion. [Daniel] Dennett is one of the foremost people who’s argued that it’s an illusion … but I think this is provably false. And here’s the problem…
I can, for any object, say [2:04] “Look, it seems to me that I’m sitting in front of you but I might be dreaming. You might not really be there. But if you try to say it seems to me that I’m seeing someone who looks just like you or it seems to me that I’m in front of a red wall — but the seeming, even the seeming is an illusion — that would be saying “it seems to seem.”
But that [2:29] would be the same as it “seeming” so you cannot get away from the “seeming” and the “seeming” just is what most people mean by consciousness.
In short, Strawson is saying that, contrary to the claims of eliminative materialists like Dennett, the normal conscious experience of seeing red is self-validating. It can’t just be an illusion because there is nothing for it to be an illusion about. He goes on:
Galen Strawson: [7:35] I’m inclined to go all the way. … Consciousness is the most certainly known fact the most certainly known natural fact. … we all believe in an external physical world and many of us think that that world involves fundamentally non-conscious non-experienced things and I’m sure that’s true. But if you ask me to prove it, it isn’t actually
formally provable. The old problem of our skepticism about the external world simply isn’t finally answerable. So that’s how important it [consciousness] is. It’s the only thing we know for certain to exist but of course we we’re sure that there are other things.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn: [8:22] But as far as your view of reality, you are more sure that consciousness exists, certainly your consciousness, than anything else.
Galen Strawson: [8:28] Sure, you could make that point. You could say that the skepticism I just introduced about “is there an external World?” … strictly speaking I can’t even be sure that there are other consciousnesses. But that’s, you know, the thing about skepticism. Quite a lot of philosophers think that you have to try to refute it and that seems to me to be
a mistake. Funnily enough, it’s [8:52] giving it too much importance. The thing about skepticism, you just have to say “There it is. I cannot, strictly speaking, refute it. But I’m just going to pass on. I’m not interested.”
One interesting thing that did not come out in the interview is that in recent years, Strawson seems to have argued his way to panpsychism, the belief that consciousness is widespread in the universe. Essentially, it made more sense to him to say that consciousness is physical — and that electrons are conscious — than that consciousness is an illusion.
In a 2020 interview, science writer Robert Wright asked him to explain: “Isn’t it kind of challenging to imagine that it’s like anything at all to be my curtains?” Strawson replied,
I don’t think there is anything that’s like to be curtains…
What I do think is … that the weave of energy stuff that they’re made of — [that] consciousness resides in that.
To think that the stuff of which it’s made involves consciousness … doesn’t entail that every piece of every particular clumping of it also is a subject of consciousness. That’s no more plausible than thinking that a football team is a subject of consciousness because it’s made of subjects of consciousness.News, How a materialist philosopher “argued his way to panpsychism,” Mind Matters News, May 9, 2021.
Strawson is an atheist and materialist. A panpsychist position — where the energy of electrons may itself be consciousness — enables a thinker to maintain those positions while still acknowledging the reality of consciousness. That probably accounts for panpsychism’s growing popularity.
You may also wish to read: Philosopher: I accept dualism but don’t believe in the soul. David Chalmers, whose background is in physics, talks to Robert Lawrence Kuhn at Closer to Truth about his struggle to accept that the mind is immaterial. Chalmers: “I banged my head against the wall for years trying to come up with a physically based theory of consciousness.” New insights sprang from defeat.