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.