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Illusionism: an Argument for Its Incoherence


In his recent paper on the meta-problem of consciousness, Chalmers (J Conscious Stud 25(9–10):6–66, 2018) claims that illusionism is one of the best reductionist theories available and that it is not incoherent, even if it is implausible and empirically false. Our paper argues against this: strong illusionism is poorly established. The first part presents the reasoning leading to strong illusionism; i.e., it describes the initial conditions and relations among them for its establishment. The second part of the paper argues that strong illusionism is not constructed in a satisfactory way and calls the flaw in establishing it the pre-illusion problem. The third part demonstrates that the existing defense of strong illusionism does not save it from the pre-illusion problem, while the fourth part of the paper outlines two strategies to fight the pre-illusion problem, concluding, however, that they fail to do so, and indicates one possible way in which illusionism might be, nevertheless, coherently established.

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  1. 1.

    The term illusionism always refers to strong illusionism unless stated otherwise.

  2. 2.

    Phenomenality, by definition, rejects any explanatory attempts from physicalism, because its essential, qualitative nature, i.e., “what it’s like,” eludes any mechanistic theory.

  3. 3.

    An example of weak illusionism is the strategy of phenomenal concepts (Loar, 1990; Papineau, 2007), which links the anomalous nature of phenomenality to a specific property of directness and conceptual isolation. However, the strategy of phenomenal concepts despite being the main policy of physicalists, does not withstand criticism (Fürst, 2014; Goff 2017). What remains is still something that has the qualitative nature, something which, by definition, is outside of the scope of physicalism. And we are still left empty handed: if phenomenal concepts refer to the qualitative character then we are again left without the physicalist explanation of qualia; and if they do not refer to the qualitative nature then weak illusionism collapses into strong illusionism.

  4. 4.

    Represented by philosophers who are making radical theoretical revisions and are modifying the existing metaphysics in a non-physical way following thereby the described methodology: physicalism is exhausted to bring out some new, i.e., non-physical, explanation of phenomenality.

  5. 5.

    The analogy drawn here is the one with paranormal powers, such as telekinesis.

  6. 6.

    In other words, phenomenal consciousness does not need to be explained since it does not exist; i.e., there is no phenomenal consciousness instantiated in our world. This is the so-called meta-approach (denying or questioning the hard problem) to the explanation of consciousness within the physicalist framework.

  7. 7.

    Chalmers calls them phenomenal reports (Chalmers, 2018: 7).

  8. 8.

    The meta-problem of illusion is finding an answer to the following question: why are we not ready to see phenomenal consciousness as an illusion?

  9. 9.

    We are greatly indebted to Danilo Šuster for this objection.

  10. 10.

    We owe this objection to an anonymous rewiever.

  11. 11.

    Are qualia a pure ontological dispute, as is the case with many philosophical concepts (universals, mathematical objects)? If we compare it with other ontological disputes, we can see that the dispute over qualia differs significantly from them. Qualia are not an explanation for a certain state of affairs or for a certain way of perceiving the world, such as, e.g., universals. Qualia are not introduced as an explanation but are themselves a phenomenon that requires explanation. Dispute about qualia cannot therefore be similar to that of numbers or universals, since the latter are introduced into an ontology to explain what different objects have in common. Those who are not in favor of universals can deny their ontological reality. It is different with qualia. The discussion itself does not begin with some phenomena, which would then have to be explained by invoking qualia into ontology. No, the debate over qualia is not in the same way ontological, as it begins with the very phenomenon of qualia. In the case of universals, we explain the apparent equality and similarity of various things, while qualia are themselves the appearances that needs an explanation. (Crane, 2000: 170).

  12. 12.

    One has to keep in mind the dialectical chasm between illusionists and their opponents: illusionism was called “crazy” (Frances 2008: p. 241; Strawson, 1994: p. 101), “utterly implausible” (Balog, 2016: p. 42), “impossible” and “absurd” (Nida-Rümelin, 2016: 163, p. 170), “obviously false,” “self-defeating,” and “incoherent” (Goff, 2016: p. 84–85), and other things in the vicinity (Chalmers, 1996: pp. 188–189; Searle, 1997).

  13. 13.

    One might protest that they could arrive at the conclusion that phenomenality is anomalous because the idea of phenomenality does not fit with their theoretical commitments to physicalism. Granted, but in this case the elimination of phenomenality would be a consequence of strictly following the physicalist commitments and not a consequence of the concept of phenomenality including/requiring the first-person experience as it is now (see Chapter 4).

  14. 14.

    The direct acquaintance theory claims that we have a direct epistemic access to the data of phenomenal consciousness, which suspends any possibility of error.


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Correspondence to Janez Bregant.

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Lipuš, A., Bregant, J. Illusionism: an Argument for Its Incoherence. Acta Anal (2021).

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  • Consciousness
  • Illusionism
  • Phenomenal properties
  • Knowledge argument
  • First-person perspective