Consciousness as Illusion?

Massimo Pigliucci over at Rationally Speaking ponders free will, moral responsibility and consciousness and, as always, presents a well reasoned and eloquent argument — we do exist!

[div class=attrib]From Rationally Speaking:[end-div]

For some time I have been noticing the emergence of a strange trinity of beliefs among my fellow skeptics and freethinkers: an increasing number of them, it seems, don’t believe that they can make decisions (the free will debate), don’t believe that they have moral responsibility (because they don’t have free will, or because morality is relative — take your pick), and they don’t even believe that they exist as conscious beings because, you know, consciousness is an illusion.

As I have argued recently, there are sensible ways to understand human volition (a much less metaphysically loaded and more sensible term than free will) within a lawful universe (Sean Carroll agrees and, interestingly, so does my sometime opponent Eliezer Yudkowsky). I also devoted an entire series on this blog to a better understanding of what morality is, how it works, and why it ain’t relative (within the domain of social beings capable of self-reflection). Let’s talk about consciousness then.

The oft-heard claim that consciousness is an illusion is an extraordinary one, as it relegates to an entirely epiphenomenal status what is arguably the most distinctive characteristic of human beings, the very thing that seems to shape and give meaning to our lives, and presumably one of the major outcome of millions of years of evolution pushing for a larger brain equipped with powerful frontal lobes capable to carry out reasoning and deliberation.

Still, if science tells us that consciousness is an illusion, we must bow to that pronouncement and move on (though we apparently cannot escape the illusion, partly because we have no free will). But what is the extraordinary evidence for this extraordinary claim? To begin with, there are studies of (very few) “split brain” patients which seem to indicate that the two hemispheres of the brain — once separated — display independent consciousness (under experimental circumstances), to the point that they may even try to make the left and right sides of the body act antagonistically to each other.

But there are a couple of obvious issues here that block an easy jump from observations on those patients to grand conclusions about the illusoriness of consciousness. First off, the two hemispheres are still conscious, so at best we have evidence that consciousness is divisible, not that it is an illusion (and that subdivision presumably can proceed no further than n=2). Second, these are highly pathological situations, and though they certainly tell us something interesting about the functioning of the brain, they are informative mostly about what happens when the brain does not function. As a crude analogy, imagine sawing a car in two, noticing that the front wheels now spin independently of the rear wheels, and concluding that the synchronous rotation of the wheels in the intact car is an “illusion.” Not a good inference, is it?

Let’s pursue this illusion thing a bit further. Sometimes people also argue that physics tells us that the way we perceive the world is also an illusion. After all, apparently solid objects like tables are made of quarks and the forces that bind them together, and since that’s the fundamental level of reality (well, unless you accept string theory) then clearly our senses are mistaken.

But our senses are not mistaken at all, they simply function at the (biologically) appropriate level of perception of reality. We are macroscopic objects and need to navigate the world as such. It would be highly inconvenient if we could somehow perceive quantum level phenomena directly, and in a very strong sense the solidity of a table is not an illusion at all. It is rather an emergent property of matter that our evolved senses exploit to allow us to sit down and have a nice meal at that table without worrying about the zillions of subnuclear interactions going on about it all the time.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Consciousness Art. Courtesy of Google search.[end-div]