“What is the silliest claim ever made? The competition is fierce, but I think the answer is easy. Some people have denied the existence of consciousness: conscious experience, the subjective character of experience, the “what-it-is-like” of experience. Next to this denial — I’ll call it “the Denial” — every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green.”
Galen Strawson, Professor of Philosophy at University of Texas.
Strawson goes on to say:
“One of the strangest things the Deniers say is that although it seems that there is conscious experience, there isn’t really any conscious experience: the seeming is, in fact, an illusion.”
“Anyone who has ever seen or heard or smelled anything knows what it is; anyone who has ever been in pain, or felt hungry or hot or cold or remorseful, dismayed, uncertain, or sleepy, or has suddenly remembered a missed appointment. All these things involve what are sometimes called “qualia”—that is to say, different types or qualities of conscious experience. What I am calling the Denial is the denial that anyone has ever really had any of these experiences.”
Can we understand consciousness?
You’d think the answer is obvious. We understand what it is like to be conscious by experiencing it. I know what it feels like to be “me”. Denying that seems to be a philosophical black hole that leads nowhere and denies the obvious.
But it isn’t that simple of course. Many other philosophers disagree with Strawseon (just as others agree with him).
The arguments are very technical and I wouldn’t pretend to fully understand them. But the guts of it seems to be the view that:
- we can’t really understand something unless we can explain it scientifically,
- no-one can really define what consciousness is,
- nor can we scientifically test whether our experience of being conscious is “real”,
- so therefore it must be regarded as an illusion.
Understanding vs experience
Some say that scientific understanding is only secondary and external; personal experience is the only direct knowledge we have. After all, everything we know comes through our senses (except if you believe in divine revelation!).
Bertrand Russell: “We know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events, except when these are mental events that we directly experience.”
Is this important?
Philosophers on both sides seem to agree that these are important issues. There are ramifications in how we think about freewill, ethics and whether we actually exist as “selfs”. Underneath it all, Strawson’s view challenges naturalism, the view that the physical is all there is.
Opposed to this are views that say materialism or physicalism is mistaken. These views can come from both secular philosophers of mind and theistic philosophers.
Strawson’s views have apparently led him to panpsychism, the view that (contrary to physicalism), everything is mental and the physical is only a manifestation of the mental. That’s a difficult concept for most of us, but it seems that, for him, panpsychism is most likely true because the alternatives – consciousness-denying materialism, or some form of supernatural belief – are even less likely in Strawson’s mind. Though not in my mind of course!
A dumb layperson’s perspective
I am a dumb but interested layperson on this. I can’t help feeling that if philosophy has to think our selves and our conscious existence are illusions, than it has become self contradictory. If there is no self, then what is it that is arguing there is no self? If we have no freewill, then the arguments are just pre-determined products of our brains that have limited value.
Many laypeople, and many physical scientists, have little respect for philosophy because they feel it goes in pedantic circles and proves nothing. That isn’t my view. I think it is an important and helpful discipline.
But I think it needs to recognise that the fact it cannot explain something, or show how it might be explained, doesn’t necessarily make that something an unreal illusion. I think Strawson’s critics have allowed their assumptions to determine the outcome (as probably most of us often do!).
I’m with Strawson on materialism (though probably not on panpsychism), but I wonder what any readers think.