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How You Know You’re Conscious: Illusionism and Knowledge of Things

Abstract

Most people believe that consciousness is real. But illusionists say it isn’t—they say consciousness is an illusion. One common illusionist strategy for defending their view involves a debunking argument. They explain why people believe that consciousness exists in a way that doesn’t imply that it does exist; and, in so doing, they aim to show that that belief is unjustified. In this paper I argue that we can know consciousness exists even if these debunking arguments are sound. To do this, I draw on the claim that some knowledge is constituted, not by beliefs in propositions, but by awareness of properties and objects. Then I argue that accepting this claim allows us to evade illusionists’ debunking arguments by allowing us to hold that our knowledge of consciousness does not depend solely on potentially debunked beliefs in consciousness. Finally, while considering potential illusionist responses, I suggest that my strategy also yields a plausible account of our most basic knowledge of consciousness and an explanation for why so few people accept illusionism even when they have (or had) no decisive reply to illusionists’ arguments.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    They include Dennett (2016), Frankish (2016), and Kammerer (2016, 2018). Graziano (2013), Humphrey (2011), and Pereboom (2011) also give arguments for versions of illusionism. Other philosophers and scientists who are at least illusionist-friendly include Clark (2000), Rey (1996), Schwarz (2018), Argonov (2014), Blackmore (2002), Drescher (2006), Hall (2007), Tartaglia (2013), and Muehlhauser (2017).

  2. 2.

    Though, as Chalmers (2018, fn. 32; 2020) points out, these arguments are not always made explicit. Often they operate in the background of discussions of illusionism. As Chalmers (2018) puts it, “Many illusionists endorse both the premises and conclusions of debunking arguments, but they have not focused on arguments from the premises to the conclusions” (p. 44, fn. 32).

  3. 3.

    Defenders of this claim include Dennett (2016), Frankish (2016), and Kammerer (2016).

  4. 4.

    Dennett (1991), Rey (1996), Humphrey (2011), Pereboom (2011), and Rey (1996) make similar comparisons.

  5. 5.

    This analogy also highlights a key benefit of illusionism: It offers a solution to one of the most intractable problems in philosophy: the Hard Problem—the problem of explaining how physical processes give rise to consciousness. If consciousness is an illusion, there’s nothing there to explain. So, just as we can solve (or dissolve) the “problem of psychokinesis” by denying that psychokinesis exists, so too we can solve (or dissolve) the Hard Problem by denying that consciousness exists—that is, by accepting illusionism.

  6. 6.

    This response to (1) is pursued in some form or other by Chalmers (1996, 2003), Balog (2020), and Levine (2019). Morch (2020) and Saad (2019) pursue related strategies. Many other philosophers who don’t explicitly address illusionism maintain that our justification for our beliefs about consciousness derives from consciousness itself (see Duncan (2021b) for an overview of acquaintance theories of this self-knowledge). So presumably they would also reject (1) for the reason described above.

  7. 7.

    Levine (2019) and Balog (2020, §2, 4) pursue this strategy.

  8. 8.

    For some representative examples of these kinds of responses, see Frankish (2016) and Kammerer (2019).

  9. 9.

    Recent defenders of this claim include Campbell (2014, p. 13–14), Coleman (2019), Conee (1994), Duncan (2020, 2021a), McGinn (2008), Pitt (forthcoming), Prinz (2016), Tye (2009), and Grzankowski and Tye (2019). Some other philosophers defend similar claims. For example, Eleanor Stump (2010) and Lorraine Keller (2018) talk about “Franciscan knowledge”, which is similar to knowledge of things. M. Oreste Fiocco (2017) defends a Brentano-inspired account of something like knowledge of things. Matthew Benton (2017) talks about interpersonal knowledge, which is non-propositional and may be a species of knowledge of things. And Frank Hofmann (2014) argues that perceptual experience is “non-conceptual knowledge,” which is non-doxastic (though propositional).

  10. 10.

    One popular view is that the contents of perception are (or include) propositions. If that’s your view, then just note that what I’m talking about as the contents of knowledge of things are the individual objects and properties of which I am aware—what may be the constituent parts of perceptual propositions. So, even if you think that perception is propositional, there’s still room for knowledge of things.

  11. 11.

    To adopt this position, one needn’t maintain that we know of every phenomenal property that we are consciously aware of. Just as there are further conditions on propositional knowledge beyond belief (truth and justification, for example), so too there may be further conditions on knowledge of things beyond awareness. To adopt the above position, one only has to maintain that sometimes we know of the phenomenal properties of our experiences. And this is an eminently reasonable position. If our awareness of things counts as knowledge, then surely our knowledge of pains is as good an example as any.

  12. 12.

    The resistance problem is typically cast as resistance to belief in illusionism. So the above response does assume that knowledge of things impacts belief. This assumption is widely shared by defenders of knowledge of things, including Russell (In fact, as we saw, Russell (1912) claims that all of our knowledge depends on knowledge by acquaintance). And it’s highly intuitive. If I know of some object, then it is natural to think that I may form beliefs about it based on what I know of it. How this—that is, the transition from knowledge of things to knowledge of truths—works is a matter of dispute (for some discussion, see Fiocco (2017), Grzankowski and Tye (2019), and Redacted). But anti-illusionists needn’t commit to any specific stance on this. They only need to maintain that knowledge of things impacts belief and that our resistance to illusionism derives from our especially direct knowledge of consciousness.

  13. 13.

    My strategy may also help solve the more general “meta-problem of consciousness”, which is the problem of explaining why we think the Hard Problem of consciousness is so hard (or even a problem at all) (see Chalmers 2018). If we have knowledge of consciousness—including knowledge constituted by acquaintance with phenomenal properties—then our “problem intuitions” regarding consciousness may stem from our direct knowledge of consciousness itself. The Hard Problem may seem so hard because it is so hard—and we know it.

  14. 14.

    Or in other words: Hold off on the second defensive move in my “dodge the debunking” strategy. Recall that I divided this part of my strategy into two moves. The first is just to say that, since we have knowledge of consciousness that isn’t constituted by beliefs, illusionists’ debunking arguments fail to undermine all of our knowledge of consciousness. This move does not rely on the claim that knowledge of things is constituted by consciousness. It’s only the second move that incorporates that claim. So my present suggestion is to make the first move but hold off on the second for the sake of argument. Dropping the second move does rid anti-illusionists of an additional defensive move—or layer of protection, as I put it earlier—but anti-illusionists may consider this a temporary (or even optional) dialectical concession made to avoid any appearance of begging the question.

  15. 15.

    Even if the phenomenal properties weren’t one’s own, still, they’d have to be someone’s (or something’s). In which case they would be conscious. Which is enough to falsify illusionism.

  16. 16.

    A more general claim that one could endorse here—and that has been endorsed by many philosophers—is that there is no appearance-reality distinction at all when it comes to experience. Nagel (1974), for example, says that in experience “[t]the idea of moving from appearance to reality seems to make no sense” (p. 444). Kripke (1980) similarly says, “in the case of mental phenomena there is no ‘appearance’ beyond the mental phenomenon itself” (p. 154). And Searle (1997) says, “Where consciousness is concerned the existence of the appearance is the reality” (p. 112). I find these claims plausible. But illusionists will of course deny them (see, e.g., Frankish 2016, §3.2). Fortunately, my present reply to illusionists’ potential debunking strategy does not rely on such general claims.

  17. 17.

    Liu (2020) and Merlo (2020) develop something like this point into a regress argument against illusionism.

  18. 18.

    Hill (2014, 2016) contends that there are non-doxastic representations of qualia that are not themselves qualia and that can be distorted or fail to register the essential nature of qualia. Something like this view may be useful to illusionists. However, Hill does not maintain that this awareness is non-conscious, as illusionists would need it to be. So illusionists would still have more work to do. Frankish (2016, §1.1) talks about introspection representing “quasi-phenomenal properties,” each of which is a “non-phenomenal, physical property (perhaps a complex, gerrymandered one) that introspection typically misrepresents as phenomenal” (p. 4). However, since appearance properties are precisely what phenomenal properties are supposed to be, it’s not clear how one’s awareness could represent something “as phenomenal” without itself being phenomenal. It’s easy enough to imagine what it would be to believe that something is phenomenal when it’s not, or to describe something as phenomenal when it’s not, but it’s hard to imagine what it would be to be aware of something as phenomenal when there is no phenomenal consciousness (Prinz (2016) also presses this point). This point is reinforced by the fact that, on standard versions of representationalism (the preferred theory of most, if not all, illusionists), what it is to be phenomenally conscious is to represent properties (in a certain way). So, again, to help illusionists out on the present point, Frankish would need to say more about how representing quasi-phenomenal properties in awareness as phenomenal is different from—or does not entail—phenomenal consciousness.

  19. 19.

    An illusionist may be tempted to respond that an organism would need to represent this illusion across all cognitive and perceptual systems, because, otherwise, there would be a problematic inconsistency in how the organism represented the world. But an organism does not need to represent an illusion—or anything, for that matter—across all cognitive and perceptual systems in order to avoid inconsistency. Perception (for example) could just remain silent on whether there are phenomenal properties.

  20. 20.

    More generally, this objection assumes that the only dialectically relevant expressions are (or at least depend on) belief reports. But this isn’t true in general. Expressions of other mental states (e.g., desires, intentions, fears) are sometimes dialectically relevant. For example, if we are trying to determine where to go for dinner, expressions of our desires are highly relevant. Or another example: If I scream and thereby express fear, that may count as evidence for various things, including that I am afraid. But my scream is not merely an expression of a belief.

  21. 21.

    Such reports may typically come along with or reflect a belief in the existence of the thing in question, but that doesn’t mean that what one is reporting is the belief (at least not always). If you asked me why I think there’s a fire, and I said, “Because I smell smoke,” it may be true that I believe that I smell smoke, but what I am reporting—and what I mean to cite as evidence for the fire—is my awareness of the smell of smoke.

  22. 22.

    Even if knowledge of things wasn’t reportable, that wouldn’t necessarily undermine the anti-illusionist’s position here (at least not completely). It might make it more difficult to convince others, but if knowledge of things really is knowledge, then anti-illusionists can rationally maintain their position even if they can’t convince others of it.

  23. 23.

    See, for example, Balog (2012) and Chalmers (2018, 2020). Balog (2012) and Chalmers (1996, 2003) also defend this view independently of the debate over illusionism, as do Duncan (2018), Gertler (2001), Giustina (forthcoming), McGrew (1995), and Nida-Rümelin (1995).

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Duncan, M. How You Know You’re Conscious: Illusionism and Knowledge of Things. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-021-00590-1

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