The Illusion of Consciousness


Continuing the discussion from What does it tell you when someone says “I don’t believe in evolution”?:

Yeah, as I implied, it’s really okay with me that this is incomprehensible and appears to be self-contradictory. If I knew words that could explain it other than simply repeating, “Yeah, conscious might be an illusion” then I would certainly use them. Somewhere between radical materialism and being mindful of “the emptiness of phenomena” one day I said, “Oh, hey, that makes sense.”

The problem I have with what I’ll call “Socrates epistemology” is that, as Socrates said, “I know one thing: that I know nothing.” And that’s a pretty stupid thing to say. I know at least one thing: that Socrates has defined the word “know” to have nothing to do with what people actually mean when they talk about knowing things. Because people know things.

And if people know things, but it is also the case that according to Socrates-knowing you can’t know anything, then knowing isn’t about Socrates-certainty or Socrates-proof. It’s about actual certainty and actual proof which are actual things that are made up of particles and occupy space and have mass. Direct perception is one form of experimental evidence about the content of underlying reality.

What we experience is a thing, and not a private one. Other people can stick their hand into it and can walk through it by accident. Zizek asked how, out of a dumb, flat reality that just is, could something like perception come to be. I found his 900 page answer unsatisfying. To me, the simplest answer is, “Maybe that’s a silly question.” I compare it to the at-the-time reaction to wave-particle duality: This was regarded as a paradox because of the conceit that light had to be like something that was already understood. The notion that light sometimes acts like a wave and sometimes acts like a particle is a metaphor for the fact that light acts the way light acts. When we talk about the very base components of reality, they are going to be non-apprehendable. The best we can possibly do when talking about fundamental reality is the equivalent of learning about elephants by bouncing hippopotamuses off of them and then having a soothsayer read the hippo’s intestines.

It’s funny that in the same thread that spawned this discussion, Medievalist said:

I absolutely agree with this statement in an extremely blunt and non mystical way. It is a brute and boring fact (but not a Socrates-fact) that the universe has eyes and that two of those eyes happen to be in the volume of space (though I’m not sold on the existence of space) that I call myself for social purposes.

I’m not sure what any of this has to do with the illusion of consciousness except to say that I always assume that however wrong I think I might be about anything, I might be even more wrong than that. No matter what word games I can play to convince myself that is not true, when it comes to knowing, it seems more correct to me to assume that the bottom might yet fall out.

So in one way, consciousness may be an illusion in that when I say, “I hear a ringing in my ear” I might be terribly, desperately wrong about what I am, what it is to hear, what a ringing is, what my ear is, and pretty much everything else to the point that my experience of hearing a ringing in my ear is a ridiculous fraud. I understand that that doesn’t address what people like to think of as the immediate experience of things, but it might. The Dalai Lama said that no brain scan will ever apprehend the actual experience of seeing blue, but I’m not sure that this isn’t just a barrier we have constructed for ourselves in our thinking.

Having to believe that we exist so make sense of everything else means we need an anchor. Dennett compared it to a boat driving in circles to identify itself on a radar map. We need a process that says, “This is me” if we are going to recognize “not me.” But anti-evolutionists thought that the eye was too complex to ever have evolved and then people realized it evolved completely separately in seven different hereditary lines (the fact that this probably isn’t true isn’t important here). It’s possible that evolving eyes isn’t just possible but rather nearly inevitable.

Phlogiston was an attempt to explain heat. They were wrong, but they were still trying to talk about the same thing we talk about today when we talk about heat. We’ve been grasping at that straw for a long time and we have an understanding of it now that is a lot better than Phlogiston. What’s more, we can recognize that our current understanding of heat is what we meant when we said ‘heat’ even though sometimes the definition doesn’t match our intuitions that originally led us to talk about something we called heat.

We talk about something we call experience and obviously we’ve been grasping at that straw for a long time as well. When we figure out what it is, it may be that out intuition about it does not match the reality. It may be that we’ll be able to say, “Hey, I actually didn’t experience a ringing in my ear at all.” Even that doesn’t answer the real question because we aren’t talking about the concept that we are grasping at when we speak of experience but instead of the experience we are having now which may or may not be included in that concept.

But there is no bottom.


[quote=“Humbabella, post:1, topic:19010”]
Medievalist said:
You are the eyes of the world, my friend.

I absolutely agree with this statement in an extremely blunt and non mystical way. It is a brute and boring fact (but not a Socrates-fact) that the universe has eyes and that two of those eyes happen to be in the volume of space (though I’m not sold on the existence of space) that I call myself for social purposes.[/quote]

Some of the quantum mechanics wallahs say that the function of observational sentience in the universe is to collapse probabilities so that subjective shared consensus reality can exist.

Without your eyes looking into the box, Schrodinger’s cat is stuck in purgatory… your ability to observe may well be as crucial to the universe’s existence as your lung’s ability to absorb oxygen is to your own existence.

I don’t know if it’s true, but I have been unable to disprove it, so I conditionally believe the science.


So is knowledge historically contextual then? Is the prior defnition of heat and what it meant only understandable and accurate for the time it was defined? And if that’s true, are we ever able to reconstruct the past in anything other than a piece-meal, incomplete way? Does our current knowledge make the past knowable since so much of our knowledge base has changed?


There’s one interpretation of what quantum mechanics says that more or less makes that assumption, the Copenhagen interpretation, though I’m not sure even that is always based around sentience itself. There are lots of other readings without such a distinction, so it’s not really something the science says per se.


I can’t resist adding:

You are a fluke of the universe.
You have no right to be here.
And whether you can hear it or not,
The Universe
Is laughing behind your back

– from Deteriorata, National Lampoon


An entirely fair criticism/elucidation and a useful link.

I just wanted to clarify to @Humbabella what I meant in my comment to Nathan.

I am pleased to be the eyes of the world, and I hope my mitochondria are happy with their lot too.


Sort of, but that cat actually counts as an observer. If that sounds facetious, remember that two bodies exerting a gravitational force on one another are observing one another. Very little goes unobserved. At any rate, I can’t see how any individual observer would exert much influence.

Without time travel we can’t access information about the past, only information about the present that has been affected by the past, so I would say that the past only exists as information in the present. But as for the past being knowable, assuming we don’t mean something too strong by the word “knowing” I would say we can know it. Still, if the past exists in the present as a model built from evidence of what led to now, then that model has a tension between incorporating more recent evidence or not. Evidence of what existed in a certain era would lead us to say Phlogiston theory expresses quite well what we mean when we say “heat” but we also have evidence that says that Phlogiston theory gets heat wrong.

I think I brought up the Phlogiston example to try to present the idea that concepts come before words and definitions. I see more similarity between my idea of heat and that of an ancient person than I do between the scientific ideas of heat from the present and the past. The similarity of the concept allows us to say that they were speaking of heat and we are speaking of heat, rather than saying they were speaking of Phlogiston and we are speaking of some combination of molecular kinetic energy and radiant heat (I will admit I probably don’t understand heat well).

So when Aristotle famously proposed that a human is a featherless biped, we could all say that he was wrong because a kangaroo is not a human (or, the plucked chicken from the ancient example). We know that kangaroos should not be included in the definition of “human” because we have a concept that the definition tries to express.

At the same time, it seems obvious to me that concepts must change over time. As individuals I would think we will nearly always make mistakes about the past because we view it through the lens of today.

I believe my one month should expire on February 10? Please bring my attention to any instances of non-prime English.


Absolutely! We are still agreeing, in that instance. Screws up the metaphor, to my mind, but surprisingly few people catch it. I think the average cat is probably more sentient than some people I’ve known.

Luckily there’s a lot of observers, and in any case only the phenomena we impact actually matter as far as determining the reality we experience. But I don’t believe that two non-sentient bodies exerting gravitational force on each other counts as observation for my purposes.


Well, I read about some very interesting experiments involving unobserved phenomena (obviously observed at some point - Delayed choice quantum eraser). Causing something to go unobserved seems to take a lot of work. Still, if a particle A goes observed only by an influence on particle B, then particle A only counts as observed if something observes particle B, I guess. And little particles can apparently just form an interference pattern where none of their properties are observed. I certainly don’t know enough to say anything definitively.


Well, individual particles obviously don’t count or there wouldn’t be any quantum effects to worry about.

There is an idea that all that counts is the sheer complexity or size of the bodies, though; once they have interacted enough the states become linked, and with enough degrees of freedom basic statistics say the combined states will surely end up independent, what is called decoherence.

It doesn’t show there was a collapse in theory, but in practice means you won’t see any further effects of superposed probabilities. Which is what we were talking about, right?


I think you know more about this than I do, does it seem right to say that individual particles can’t observe one another because they have not been observed?

If I observe particle A and particle B has some sort of interaction with it then particle B would not be escaping observation. Maybe rather than “observing” things we could think of it as “being impacted by” them.


Yes if you meant that the way I suspect, but I’m not sure. Here observation is connected with superposed states collapsing or at least decohering; all I was saying is that if that happened whenever particles interact, there would never have been any superposed states in the first place, since they’re never completely isolated from everything else.


Sorta, yes.

People ask “what are we here for” and I say “I think it’s to experience things”. That is our function, in the same way that the function of your red blood cells is to shuttle oxygen and carbon dioxide around. It’s what we do. We might have other functions… or maybe I’ve misidentified our primary function and quantum mechanisms have nothing to do with it anyway (but I’m acting on my knowledge at this time, and hoping my experiences bring me more knowledge).

The point I was originally trying (perhaps failing) to express is that our relationship with the whole is what defines and informs us as thinking beings. You are part of a greater thing just as a tree is a part of a forest which is part of a planetary ecosystem which is part of a solar system which is part of a universe. Our specialness lies in our ability to choose which levels of perceptions to exert - we can consider a forest as easily as a tree, we can inhabit the universe as easily as a house. We can love one individual human being (or cat) more than others. It is our discriminatory capability, which is so fantastically flexible, that is the font of most of our arguments, fears and joys.

It is possible for humans to purposely eradicate their ability to discriminate between entities, or to suffer certain types of brain disorders that break down the ability to form delineations between observer and observed. It’s very enjoyable, although you can get “blissed out” - happy but completely unproductive. But now reverse the scenario - without the acknowledgement of outside phenomena, it’s pretty hard to get past Descartes Ergo Cogito Sum in my opinion, and if you use physical means like drugs and sense-dep to eradicate external perceptions of reality, your mind will start fabricating a substitute, it’ll start recursively observing itself.

So I accept that there is a universe that includes me, that I am an integral part of, and that I serve a function in that larger universe even if that function is simply balancing entropy by converting less complex chemical compounds into meat, or providing an object of ridicule for others. The point is more that I am part of what is, than what my exact function might be. I’m not separate, any more than my mitochondria (or subatomic particles) are separate from me. I do my work for the one that we all are, and mostly, what I do is observe. I enjoy your point of view because it gives me observations I might not otherwise achieve, y’know? Eyes of the world.

Gotta go home now, ciao!


What makes me question how much we know history (other than the fact that I study it…) is that no one seems to agree. [quote=“Humbabella, post:7, topic:19010”]
As individuals I would think we will nearly always make mistakes about the past because we view it through the lens of today.

And this right here is why… not only do we view it through the lens of the present, we also view it through our own personalized lens of ourselves… If concepts change over time (something I always bring up in the classes I teach, because change over time, duh), I think it behooves us to figure out why and how and to acknowledge that any form of knowledge is going to be marked by our own biases and perspective. At the end of the day, I’m not sure we can ever know anything for sure, in part because while we have our own perspectives and realities, those often bump up against the perspectives and realities of others.

Also… I think one of my professors is a proponent of E-Prime… he always dings you on papers for using a form of to be… Is that they way they talk in E-space. Also… will they ever bring back Romana…???


I have a historian friend known for his deep but discouraging insights, and he says “no publishing historian ever got tenure by agreeing with the previously accepted narrative.”


You got to be doing something sexy and exciting… but at the same time, you don’t want to piss off the higher ups who are granting you tenure. Also, publish lots of books that no one will read and that you will never make money on…

Academia… hooray.


The cat in the box is dead or it isn’t but the cat in the box in your head is neither and both.
(Until you measure it)


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