Donald Clegg: Is consciousness an illusion?
I’ve been thinking about the nature of consciousness for a few decades now, trying to find a satisfactory explanation for the puzzling thing, entity, ghost, epiphenomenon, whatever-you-want-to- call-it, that we label a “self.” Do we even have one, or does it have us, or is it just an illusion? Then, trailing along like someone’s kid brother, comes a host of other riddles: free will and/or determinism; dualism and/or monism; the philosopher’s zombie – possible or not? Quale and qualia, real or not?
Translated, are YOU – yes, you – just a zombie? Apparently in possession of human qualities but really without an inner life at all? (Actually, this might be a fair description of most Americans.) And what is your experience of the scent and color of a red rose (quale, singular, qualia, plural) and is that experience in congruence with the real rose? So many questions, so few answers.
And, for many people, the biggest of the biggies: The soul and the question of whether it, which is to say, ME, somehow survives death.
I’m bringing this up, as is often the case, because I just finished an interesting book, Susan Blackmore’s “Conversations on Consciousness.” It was the fortuitous result of a series of interviews she had with leading minds on the brain (or maybe brains on the mind) and a refreshingly casual look at their not-polished- for-peer- review-and- debunking thoughts on “the brain, free will, and what it means to be human.”
The book’s 8 years old now, so no doubt many of the people have revised their thoughts, but it was a fascinating read. Most of the participants were almost disturbingly conversant on each other’s points of view and there was no consensus on anything. So, for what they’re worth, I feel free to offer my own conclusions.
I don’t think that we really have a self. I’ll call it an epiphenomenon, a by-product of consciousness that comes and goes, just an illusion. (Albeit a mighty convincing one.) And, speaking of consciousness, we are mostly not. My offhand guess is that of our 16 waking hours, perhaps two or three of them involve consciousness; the rest of the time we’re on autopilot. This is not a bad thing. Try to return a tennis serve or flip an egg while thinking about it.
Free will? I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t exist but I have to go with Immanuel Kant and many others, who tell us that we should still act as if we have it, and behave accordingly. Dualism is hogwash; mind and body are one and the same. In accordance with this view, I have to also conclude that – much as I might like to believe otherwise – there is no soul, no separate something that survives death, in whatever manner you care to believe.
Although I vacillate among philosophical stances, functionalism and utilitarianism seem to be my steadiest partners. I divorced idealism long ago, and even though I speak as if I have beliefs – like not believing in free will – I don’t really even believe in belief. Which is to say, everything should be believed provisionally, including belief in provisional belief. Everything I think I know may be wrong and it is most likely that when I am most sure that I am the furthest from the truth or reality or both.
Mind is what the brain does. God is what mind does. A functional explanation, as I’ve said before, with no supernatural one required or necessary. Our atoms disperse after our deaths and, with some luck and planning, they help to sustain new life after we’re gone.
Fertilizer, you know?
Contact Donald Cleggat firstname.lastname@example.org.