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RS 242 - Keith Frankish on “Why consciousness is an illusion”

Release date: October 28th, 2019

Keith Frankish

Philosopher of mind Keith Frankish is one of the leading proponents of “illusionism,” the theory that argues that your subjective experience — i.e., the “what it is like” to be you — is a trick of the mind. It’s a counterintuitive theory, but Keith makes the case for it in this episode, while explaining the other leading theories of consciousness and why he rejects them.


Keith’s Twitter

Keith’s website

Keith’s most recent book, "Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness"

"The Meta-Problem of Consciousness" by David Chalmers

"The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Philosophy of Mind)" by David Chalmers

Edited by Brent Silk

Music by Miracles of Modern Science

Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (7)

Was this entire episode just an elaborate illusion?

I think, therefore I am. Everything else I must doubt.

Why can't consciousness have a supernatural character?
Existence itself has a supernatural character. The Universe exists without any apparent cause for its creation.
October 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
Well this is the first time (since Julia is solo-hosting this podcast), but I'm not even going to listen to this episode.

For one, I think he's making the one claim that we know to be false with absolute certainty. Now granted, the absolute certainty is only inside of the model, and it is possible that I'm so fundamentally confused that I'm applying the wrong model, but whatever the total probability cashes out at, it's low.

But moreover, to the extent that I would change my mind, that would be a bad thing for me and for the world. I only ascribe ethical significance to conscious systems, so if consciousness is an illusion, I am a nihilist. Say I listen and end up assigning a 5% chance to there being no consciousness. This will make me depressed and decrease my motivation for everything. Ofc if there is no consciousness, it doesn't matter (unless I'm fundamentally confused about that, too), but if there is, it's a bad thing.

And there is a fundamental difference of this and other negative theories. Say someone was arguing that there is strong evidence for particles being able to suffer. This would be horrifying, but if it were true, then there'd still be an upside of knowing because it would allow me to redirect my life's goal toward trying to destroy the universe as quickly as possible. But in this case, there is zero upside to knowing, because if the theory is correct, then the total utility in the universe is zero.

The only rational choice is to not listen to the argument at all.
October 29, 2019 | Unregistered Commentersty.silver
Thanks for a very deconfusing episode. I'm starting to grasp what your guest calls "phenomenological consciousness". Which helped me explain why philosophers of mind always sounded so confused: I never realized before that when they say "consciousness", they mean this "phenomenological consciousness", which sounds so obviously not real that it simply never occurred to me as a concept, compared to the boring normal firing neurons one (which I don't understand either, but seems vastly less mysterious).
October 30, 2019 | Unregistered Commentertenthkrige
Wow, the first two comments are really surprising to see around here. They can pretty much be summarized as "if consciousness isn't conceptualized as something like my pre-theoretical intuitions make me think of it, then denying it amounts denying there's any such thing as subjective experience". I see this kind of reaction a lot coming from conservative/uncharitable philosophers (or philosophically interested lay people) that attach an unreasonable credence to a priori intuitions, but I thought the RS audience would be a little more willing to actually make an honest effort to at least *understand* what the illusionist position is and what motivates it. If one reads any work of any serious illusionist author, it won't take long for one to notice that they are very aware of the kind of concern expressed in the above comments and that they are not even near of flat out denying subjective experience. Damn, just read chapter 3 of Dennett's Consciousness Explained, for example, and then tell me whether illusionists are really holding silly views people keep attributing to them, such as denying some very basic experiences we have. Or even better, since you're already here just listen to the interview when your emotional resistance is lower.

I don't mean to personally offend anyone, but to me it's frankly just lazy and arrogantly dogmatic to think several authors who have been working for decades on consciousness, in close contact with the best contemporary cognitive science while also maintaining a dialogue with critics, can be dismissed with a sentence or two that just amount to saying "but it sounds crazy, so it must be wrong!". It does sound crazy when you first hear it, and it really can be wrong, but it's unlikely that it's wrong just because it sounds crazy (unless one gives a pretty good argument to the effect that our bare intuitions are highly reliable when it comes to deliver knowledge about the nature of consciousness with all of its features).
October 30, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHelio
I'm still confused. Is consciousness an illusion just because it's an emergent phenomenon? Is water an illusion because it reduces to molecules?
October 31, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMax
NRA Members beware…!!! I joined the NRA wine club on the exact day I received the offer email (6/12/2012). I received my wines today (6/19/2012) HOWEVER… None of the wines promised in their email and still being offered today were included in my shipment. Also the Free Wine Tote or the $25 gift certificate that was to be shipped was even shipped yet…
October 31, 2019 | Unregistered Commentersteve
Well, thanks for that warning, Steve. I guess the NRA Wine Club is an illusion!

I listened to this episode several times and can report no "ah ha" moment, as Julia mentioned. While appreciating the complexity of the topic, all I can say is that the supernatural as a cause for human consciousness has such low priors as to rule it out of consideration. We know billions of things about the universe now, all of which have natural, discoverable causes, and positing the supernatural in any sense has to overcome those billions of priors. It is far more likely that consciousness has a natural cause than a supernatural one. Many people, including this guest, are making an honest effort to understand consciousness both philosophically and experimentally. Some of them may wind up being wrong, but being proven wrong experimentally moves the field forward, does it not? I have no idea what the final result will be but congratulate those exploring the topic, and reject out of hand those who default to "it will never be understood" or "it's a miracle" viewpoints.

Thanks for an intriguing episode.
October 31, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMBenson

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