A suggestion for Church reform

A polemical initiative for reform of the Catholic Church in Germany is under way, as reported by the Deutsche Welle. The context is all the recent scandals about child abuse and sexual misconduct by priests, as well as a continuing, significant decline in Church attendance. The latter has been going on for decades, but is now reaching a point where the very survival of the Church is at stake. Many parishes have already closed. In my country, even the Cathedral of Utrecht, home of the archbishop, has had to close last year. It is fair to say that the situation is coming to a head and the future of religion in the Western world looks bleak.

In my book, More Than Allegory, I have stated my views on religion: I think it is a valid and important part of human life that we neglect at our own peril. Religious mythology, although obviously not literally true, is symbolic of something that, while transcending our rational faculties, is integral and critical to being human. The primordial religious impulse reflects, in my view, a true, transcendent aspect of reality; it must be nurtured if we are to be complete human beings. As such, I believe the Catholic Church, whose history has been inextricably intertwined with that of the West since Constantine, has a critical role to play. The European collective mind, obfuscated by the rational and secular spirit of the Enlightenment as it may have been, continues nonetheless to rest on Christian mythological foundations. The continuing erosion of these foundations will exert—well, is already exerting—a heavy toll on our psychic balance and health, as the modern epidemics of depression, anxiety, ennui and despair attest to.

I am thus very interested in the survival and revitalization of the Church. Without extensive institutional support (more specifics on this below), it is difficult to see how the flame of a religious life can be kept alive in the West. However—and to merely state the obvious—the Church can only be saved with uninhibited, extensive, far-reaching, courageous reform, for it is completely out of synch with the spirit of this time. Should it continue on its present course, it doesn't take a genius to see that the Church will be relegated to irrelevance and become, at best, a kind of museum or tourist attraction (anyone visiting e.g. Cologne Cathedral for Sunday mass will see that this, in fact, is already happening). In this post, I dare to offer a suggestion for what this reform should entail; must entail.

In times past, the Church has performed the function of social control through its moral dogmas. Priests used their Sunday sermons to keep people straight, so to speak. Religious moralizing may have had a role to play in those times, absent the proper rule of law. Today, however, things are very different. Ever fewer people will take that kind of moralizing seriously, and many will think it pathetic. To be judged and absolved for their alleged sins is not what people today are looking for. They have a whole new attitude to life in which the very idea that they are sinners doesn't resonate. I don't feel like a sinner; do you? I do feel confused, but not guilty. I miss a more personal relationship with transcendence, but not judgment. I would like to experience a deeper meaning in my life but not to be given an outdated list of behavioral norms. Moreover, we have perfectly good, secular rationales for our laws, as well as law enforcement. We don't need the Church to keep society working at an operational level.

What we do need the Church for is meaning, contact with something transcendent. Our daily, secular lives lack in depth and true purpose. Ordinary goings-on are banal and ultimately pointless. Consumerism offers an ostensive escape route, but it doesn't work for long, for mere things do not have the numinous power of religious symbols. We've replaced the altar with cigarettes, alcohol, porn and new pairs of shoes, but it didn't work quite well for us, did it? A doorway to transcendence and meaning is what the Church could help us with, if only it would drop the moralizing and focus on liturgy, i.e. the ritualistic part of a religious life.

So here is my suggestion for the Church authorities: drop the focus on moral codes, judgment and guilt trips. Nobody is looking for that today and nobody will go to the Church on Sunday to get that. Jesus Himself did not focus on judgment, so why should those who labor on His name do so? Replacing judgment and moralizing with the attitude of tolerance and understanding characteristic of modern psychotherapists is, in my view, entirely consistent with Christianity.

Focus on liturgy, on the ritual of the mass. Be conservative in that regard, go back to using Latin and the elaborate rituals of times bygone. The mass doesn't need to be understood, for it is not meant for the intellect. Goodness knows we have enough stuff keeping our intellect engaged already. The mass should be precisely a way for us to defocus from the intellect and open space for other psychic faculties, such as transcendent intuition and feeling. If the mass achieved such goal, I, for one, would attend it every Sunday and contribute more to the Church. For then the Church would nurture an aspect of my humanity that nothing else in this secular society can.

Priests already receive extensive training on philosophy and counseling. They are already well equipped to play the role of helping, understanding, non-judging guides to a life of meaning, without all the moralizing that puts people off. They could play a role that no secular psychotherapist today could, for priests can navigate the waters of metaphysics. They are also invested with the formidable energy of tradition; an energy that constantly circulates—unnoticed—through the deepest layers of our psyches and, if mobilized properly, could have a huge positive impact in our lives.

So here you go: priests as counselors. But priests also as actors in a symbolic drama staged as a ritual—the mass—whose purpose is to reawaken within us our dormant but innate link to transcendence; a symbolic ritual that evokes transcendence in us, so the attendants of the mass can have a direct religious experience facilitated by the Church. This, in my view, is the vital role of the Church: to point to transcendence, as facilitators, so we can find our way there. The notion of the Church and its priests as intermediaries, or spokespeople for God, is not one that will thrive in the 21st century. We don't need to regard priests as superhuman beings with privileged access to God; they have never been that anyway, and today we all know it. Trying to maintain that implausible image is a dangerous waste of time for the Church. Yet, priests have vital roles to play in our society; and they can play those roles at the drop of a hat—for many are already equipped to do so—if only the Church would reform its orientation and purpose accordingly.

Will my suggestion be heard? Of course not. It won't even be noticed. More than likely, the Church will die a slow, agonizing, sad death into irrelevance, because those in it who pronounce themselves adherents of tradition fail to see that the core of the tradition has itself been buried under layers of social moralizing. Christianity became the foundation of the West's spiritual life not on account of its dogmatic prescriptions, but because, originally, it touched something alive deep within us. Now it will only survive and thrive if it, once more, re-learns to touch us again.

This post is not an attempt to patronize anyone. I am no authority in these matters anyway. But I am very sincerely interested in seeing the vitality of the Church restored, while I despair at being confronted with its decline everywhere around me. So this is my somewhat desperate and clumsy attempt to do something about it, for what it's worth. Whatever faults this post may contain, it is at least sincere and heartfelt.

Neo-skepticism and post-truth: a call to reason

This is a relatively long essay in which I address a variety of highly polemical topics, such as science skepticism, post-truth, climate change, etc. You will not really know what my positions are until you read this post through. Partial reads will likely lead to misinterpretation.

Story control

Until not so long ago, our cultural mindset about most issues of importance was largely determined by only a few outlets of the mainstream media. These outlets were, by and large, trusted implicitly and rather uncritically by our parents and grandparents, perhaps even by our younger selves. Their reporting, even if occasionally suspected of bias, was mostly seen as an expression of the truth. Indeed, these outlets were our key channels to perceived truth: what was actually happening in society, who was friend or foe, which countries were good and which were bad, what were the proper values to live by, systems to comply with, philosophies to give credence to, etc. They exerted what I call 'story control': editorial power over a mainstream narrative that massively influenced how we thought and lived.

This relative monopolization of a society's view of the truth goes back to the Church's firm grip on the hearts and minds of the people in the middle ages and, much farther back still, to when emperors set the tone for how entire populations were to think. The very few free, critical thinkers that managed to raise their head above the story control were anathematized throughout most of history. The power of centralized, monolithic broadcasting systems was as formidable as it was unnoticed: so pervasive and taken-for-granted it was, most of us didn't even notice how deeply manipulated we all were by their editorial choices and subliminal suggestions.

I am not talking about premeditated conspiracy theories here. Human beings can hardly extricate themselves from their own beliefs and views, and so their actions inevitably reflect such beliefs and views. The people responsible for mass communication in yesteryears—be them priests holding Sunday sermons in the middle ages or editors of the 8:00pm news in the 20th century—did their job informed by their own perspectives and biases, because doing so is only human.

Be that as it may, the result is that the storyline they enforced reflected the particular prejudices, in a particular point in history, of the intellectual and economic elites that held control over the centralized broadcasting infrastructure of the time. One could even make the case that metaphysical materialism itself spread beyond academia only with the popularization of newspapers in the 19th century and of radio—and later television—broadcasts in the early 20th century.

Centralization and the elites

For economic and technological reasons, the means to persuasively broadcast views to the general population—and, thereby, exert story control—have been limited and centralized for most of recorded history. In the middle ages, the Church not only retained control of scholarship (everybody else was too busy fighting wars or toiling the fields), but was also in a unique position to broadcast its message through its formidable logistical infrastructure and, frankly, marketing appeal. In the 20th century, the knowhow and investment required to start a significant radio or television broadcast operation rendered it feasible for only a very few. And so the general storyline that informed entire civilizations reflected the particular perspectives of relatively few individuals with privileged access to both knowledge and economic power. I am not passing judgment on whether this was good or bad; it just was, for reasons we can easily understand.

As a result, entire societies were subtly subjugated to the views developed by the elites, who had more access not only to the knowledge of their time, but also to expensive, centralized broadcasting infrastructure. Again, I am not passing political judgment on this state of affairs; in my crazier daydreams, I even imagine that some form of enlightened absolutism—if it were realistic, which it is not—would be the ideal governing system. Nonetheless, I believe it to be an ascertainable fact that our culture's mainstream views were developed and maintained—for the past many centuries—as I've just described: enforced top-down by an elite with privileged access to knowledge and centralized broadcasting infrastructure.

Knowledge drunkenness

The problem is that knowledge isn't a very reliable or even stable thing, nor does it always come hand-in-hand with economic power. Even science—the most reliable method for the development of objective knowledge ever devised by humans—is done by humans and, as such, vulnerable to the entire gamut of human shortcomings: ego, ambition, pride, prejudice, etc. Chronicling the early days of science in the 17th and early 18th centuries, Ernst Benz wrote:
The findings of modern science were forged in this atmosphere of passionate conflict. The favor of the court, the intrigues of ministers, the rivalry of colleagues, the competition of university chairs, personal dislike and self-justification, social concerns, political cabals and covert influences, the pride and triumph of inventors, human weakness, gossip and convention all played their part in this drama. (p. 45)
If this sounds familiar, it is because little has changed. We are, after all, still human. Most of science is done by academics who have families and egos to feed and, therefore, a vested interest in the social recognition of their work. Doubtlessly, the vast majority displays integrity and honesty. Often enough, however, human weaknesses translate into false or biased research results that are nonetheless published. Though there are safeguards to keep such spurious results in check, chaff does pass through the filters. The raging replication crisis in science is the result.

Equally concerning is what I shall call the 'drunkenness of knowledge.' Acquiring more knowledge—for instance, upon achieving a doctorate—exposes one to a broader horizon of things still unknown. In principle, this should have a humbling effect. In practice, however, one often starts believing that one's mere opinions or intellectual dispositions are in some sense privileged or superior.

The problem is that accumulating knowledge within a certain field is one thing, but being able to sensibly interpret and apply this knowledge beyond the restricted boundaries of that field is another thing entirely. Many scientists fail miserably in the latter challenge. When one becomes drunken with one's own limited knowledge, one starts making unjustified—and often outright ridiculous—extrapolations of that knowledge beyond its boundaries of validity. This is particularly visible amongst the self-appointed spokespeople of science when they inadvertently venture into the untamed horizons of philosophy. In recent times, painful examples have been provided by Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson. It is understandable—though unfortunate, as I shall discuss shortly—that, in face of such raw stupidity raging amongst PhDs, one might throw one's arms up and become a science skeptic.

The intellectual and economic elites are not immune to bias, delusion and even in-your-face stupidity. The highly specialized stupidity of PhDs is particularly pernicious, and I say this as a double PhD myself. Knowledge-drunken doctors are dangerous because of the self-confidence with which they extrapolate their limited understanding, the authority they command while doing so, and the access they have to centralized broadcasting infrastructure. Their foolishness and hubris infects entire societies and ways of life.

Decentralization and neo-skepticism

Since the turn of the century, however, things have been changing fast. Old idols are being burned, old illusions seen through. There is a new level of skepticism about the mainstream narrative, which has been rendering story control less and less effective. People see through the pompous but ultimately hollow attitude of arrogant elites. They realize they have been, to some significant extent, systematically manipulated. With a renewed critical attitude, they realize their emperors have no clothes.

I am not claiming that skepticism about the mainstream narrative is a new phenomenon in history. There have always been free thinkers and skeptics; there has always been doubt about what people are told from the higher echelons of society. But there is something happening now that nurtures this skepticism to levels never before seen: the decentralization of broadcasting technologies enabled by the Internet and social media.

For the first time, people are able to broadcast their skepticism, their own alternative views, and connect with other likeminded people so to build entire communities. For the first time free thinkers no longer find themselves in social isolation and can reach an audience. Would you have heard of my own work if not for this? One no longer needs to be invited for an interview at a major television channel in order to be heard: an engaging blog post can go viral and make one's non-mainstream ideas popular overnight, without any kind of editorial control. The social and cultural dynamics this 'neo-skepticism' is introducing in our civilization are dizzying, and—I suspect—will only be fully appreciated decades from now, with the context and perspective that only hindsight can provide.

A new level of responsibility

Undoubtedly, there are tremendous positive aspects to this new dynamism. The chains of story control are being broken by a democratization of broadcasting technologies and a widening of unmediated social interactions. There is less editorial control by elites effectively censuring what one can hear. We have more options, more hypotheses to consider about everything: from the very nature of reality to how best to live our lives. Our individuality—our ability to choose how and what we think, and how we act in the world—has been empowered to levels only accessible to the aristocracy in previous ages.

However, this means that never before in history has each one of us carried so much responsibility for our choices. The empowerment of the individual—of our personal reasoning, opinions, beliefs and actions—places the future of organized human activity in our hands. We are now actors, not mere audience. The conclusions we arrive at, out of our personal and sovereign assessment of our situation, determine our collective future. The steering wheel is now in the hands of the many perhaps as much as in those of the elite few.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water

And here is where things can go terribly wrong. It is definitely naive, in this day and age, to hold on to the belief that the authorities are infallible; that the opinions of PhDs must always be right; that science never gets it wrong; that what the mainstream media says is always true. Of course it isn't. We are all just humans, plagued by prejudice and bias and desperately trying to make sense of things. Nobody has the final answers. Everyone is confused and, frankly, afraid in this extraordinarily strange situation of being alive in the 21st century. The illusions of sobriety and control held by our forefathers have been broken for good and we must learn to live with it.

But we have made progress over the past centuries. We are not starting from scratch. As fallible as many scientists are, science itself, as a method of inquiry, is one of the greatest achievements of human civilization. As often as it gets things wrong, the entire technology infrastructure that surrounds us everyday, from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep, owes its existence to past scientific accomplishments. You wouldn't be reading this if science didn't get things right, and chances are you wouldn't even have survived your childhood. If you trust that the car you drive will bring you to where you need to be, or that the phone you use will put you in contact with the people you want to talk to, or that the medicine you take will help cure your health condition, you implicitly trust science. And you do implicitly trust science every day.

By the same token, as much as knowledge drunkenness is a scourge, knowledge itself has obvious and undeniable value. To disregard the value of learning is to place our future in the hands of complete ignorance, to give the steering wheel to a blind man. That some PhDs proudly pronounce stupidities doesn't mean that there is no role for PhDs to play in our society. If tomorrow I require surgery, I will want to be operated by a very learned and experienced doctor who knows what he or she is doing; not by a butcher. Next time I fly across the Atlantic, I will want my plane to be piloted by a very learned and experienced pilot who knows what he or she is doing; not by the guy sitting next to me.

I don't know how to perform surgery or to fly a plane. That's why I shall continue to entrust these tasks to those who know how to perform them. By the same token, I think I know a thing or two about philosophy and computer science; more than Lawrence Krauss or Neil deGrasse Tyson. So when it comes to the essential nature of reality or issues around artificial intelligence/consciousness, I trust my judgment over theirs. Knowledge matters.

If neo-skepticism ends up leading to an aversion to knowledge itself, our civilization will end and we will live like apes. Some people do know more than others, especially when it comes to the subjects to which they have dedicated their lives, and that is a good and very important thing. These people should be appreciated and respected for what they do know. To ignore or deny this reality is deadly: try flying in a plane piloted by your surgeon. It is legitimate that knowledge commands authority, provided that such authority be granted within its appropriate scope.

Objective facts

The value of knowledge resides in its apprehension of objective facts; that is, facts that obtain whether we like them or not, believe them or not, are aware of them or not. Even metaphysical positions that deny materialism and grant primacy to mind don't reject objective facts: my own analytic idealism grants that there is an objective world out there, beyond our personal mentation, even though I maintain that such world is constituted by transpersonal mental states.

The denial of materialism is not a denial of objective facts. Neither does it entail or imply that reality is entirely what we make of it. While I grant that the observer's role in perceived reality goes much beyond what metaphysical materialists accept, I don't think my own personal ego is constructing my entire life out of its own innate whims and dispositions. There is something out there that doesn't care about what I personally wish or think. The salient aspects of this something is what we call objective facts.

Science is the best method ever devised for giving us knowledge of the behavior of the objective world out there. Its essence resides in the following axiom: if you want to know whether a statement about nature's behavior is true or false, look at nature's behavior. Put this way, it's a truism. Yet, it is surprising how often such truism is neglected. When Aristotle claimed that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects—a statement about nature's behavior—he forgot to look at nature to see if it's really true. It took hundreds of years until Galileo famously dropped his balls from the top of the leaning tower of Pisa to prove that it isn't true.

By looking at how the world behaves—preferably according to the scientific method—we acquire knowledge about the objective facts that constitute the world. As complex and imperfect as this process may have become, it is still essentially correct, for the same reason that any sane person will believe Galileo over Aristotle in the question of falling bodies. As such, there are no such things as 'alternative facts.' Believing that a heavier body falls faster than a lighter one (if air resistance can be disregarded) doesn't make it so, no matter how strong the belief.

The value of being skeptical about certain views is precisely the renewed space it opens up for the contemplation of other views that may, in turn, correspond better to objective facts. Skepticism that denies all objective facts themselves is just madness, and defeats the very spirit of skepticism.

Climate change

Everything discussed thus far comes together in the debate about climate change. It has been claimed that scientists have been caught manipulating data about it, some of the other data available are contradictory, politicians make preposterous statements, activists go to extraordinary lengths to mobilize action, etc. Represented in this wild discussion one finds the (very human) shortcomings of doing and reporting science, story control by elites, knowledge drunkenness, etc. It would be naive not to acknowledge this, as it would be naive to simply believe, uncritically, what any individual scientist may say about a subject of such enormous complexity as the behavior of our planet's climate. It is legitimate to be cautious and guarded about climate change. It is legitimate to be taken aback by Climategate.

But if the reaction to this appropriate skepticism is to simply disbelieve that human-caused climate change is taking place, then one ultimately betrays skepticism. After all, disbelief is just another form of belief: negative belief. Proper skepticism should prompt us not to outright reject a hypothesis—and thereby effectively adopt its counterfactual alternative, i.e. that humans are not causing climate change—but to investigate the issue more thoroughly and thoughtfully. While many research results are flawed, misleading, and even outright wrong, these failures can be discerned and overcome if one looks at a more complete body of research. Science does have a knack for ultimately correcting itself.

Although the observations required for figuring out whether we are causing climate change are much more complex than dropping balls from the leaning tower of Pisa, the essence of the approach is the same, and the reasons for trusting its validity are also the same: we want to look at nature's behavior to see if we have any reason to believe we are screwing up the climate. The proper way to go about it is studying the question from multiple different angles, looking at a variety of independent sources of data, applying multiple different models, all of which should ideally be done by multiple independent research groups, funded by multiple independent parties. It is this global overview of a body of research that gives us confidence in a given conclusion, even in the presence of spurious results: the reliable conclusion is that which emerges independently from multiple lines of investigation.

I don't want to make this post about climate change. I am simply using it as a carrier to illustrate my previous points. But by looking at the body of research in the way described in the previous paragraph, I have convinced myself, to my own satisfaction, that human-caused climate change is a reality. You may agree or disagree, but this is my own sovereign conclusion, and I live my life accordingly. This is my way of taking responsibility.

Climate change, in my view, is the most critical case in which runaway neo-skepticism can overshoot the boundaries of reason, throw the baby out with the bath water and, given the level of responsibility we are now personally invested with in the world of social media, eventually lead to the collapse of our civilization.


The dynamisms underlying the rise of neo-skepticism are, in my view, primarily a positive development in human history. They open the door to a new, broader, uncensored relationship with truth. They help our society move more quickly away from entrenched but ultimately wrong views held by the elites. Delusions and deluders are seen through and given the appropriate treatment. Masks are removed. A more caustic, perhaps even cynical, but truer view of reality is achieved after centuries of sweet and sober manipulation. To consider neo-skeptics foolish or deplorable ignores the important and, in my view, valid realizations that underly and motivate their attitude.

Yet, swinging the pendulum all the way to the other extreme overshoots reason, betrays skepticism and ultimately may bring catastrophe upon our civilization. In modern Western democracies, we have the power to elect demagogues that prey on our frustrations at having been deceived by elites in the past. These demagogues may ultimately allow the world to be destroyed in the interest of maintaining the image of being skeptic of everything, even the existence of objective facts or the validity of science as a method.

Skepticism can be preyed upon by demagogues. The way to do it is to infer far too broad and generalized conclusions from the realization that something believed before is actually untrue. For instance, from the realization that scientists are flawed human beings and many scientific results are spurious, one infers the far too general and irrational conclusion that a specific scientific result is also spurious. The latter just doesn't logically follow from the former. Similarly, that knowledge drunkenness renders certain learned individuals pernicious doesn't entail or imply that knowledge itself isn't valuable and important. Finally, that the elites have manipulated society doesn't logically imply that all positions they hold are untrue. It would be rather surprising if they all were, wouldn't it?

I urge neo-skeptics to remain alert and truly skeptical, even—perhaps particularly—about those who have something to gain from the emergence of neo-skepticism. To escape from one form of manipulation just to fall head-on into another, perhaps even more dangerous one is tragic. Let us not throw the baby out with the bath water and protect the future of our civilization with reason and level-headedness.

Brain image extraction: Is it metaphysically significant?

Brain image extraction technology has been around for years now: researchers measure brain activity patterns and are then able to translate these measurements into an approximation of the imagery the subject is either seeing or imagining. This way, one can 'read your mind' or 'extract images' from your brain, so to speak: one can make inferences about your first-person visual experience based purely on objective brain activity measurements.

A new study in Russia on brain image extraction may again—understandably, but nonetheless regrettably—lead lay people to the following conjecture: if we are able to translate brain activity measurements into the visual imagery the person is actually experiencing from a first-person perspective, doesn't that mean we have bridged the explanatory gap? Philosophers have maintained for decades now that we cannot deduce the qualities of experience from objective measurements. There is an 'explanatory gap' between these two domains, in that we can't explain qualities in terms of quantities. But if—as shown in the Russian study—technology can translate EEG measurements into visual imagery, surely we have eliminated the gap; haven't we?

Surely we haven't. The conjecture—understandable and forgivable as it may be—is totally wrong; it is based on a deep misunderstanding of what is going on here. This is what I shall attempt to explain in this post.

But before we start, let me clarify first that I won't be judging the quality or accuracy of the Russian study, as reported in this preprint. I will simply assume that it is accurate, as reported. Even if this particular study turns out to be flawed—which I have no reason to believe—something along the same lines is or will surely be possible. In addition, the general public summary prepared by the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology is quite accurate, level-headed and well written. The popular science media in the West—with some honorable exceptions—could learn a thing or two from them on how to communicate science in an accessible but non-hysterical and non-misleading manner. So you don't really need to read the full technical paper to follow this post; the popular summary will do.

The first thing the researchers did was to train an artificial neural network (ANN) to link certain patterns of brain activity, as measured with an EEG, to certain images. This sounds complicated but it really isn't. All they needed to do was to take EEG readings of a subject as he or she was looking at a known set of images displayed on a screen. Researchers then knew, by construction, what brain activity pattern corresponded to each image, since the subject was actually looking at the image as his or her brain activity was being measured. Next, the researchers provided each EEG measurement as input to the ANN and trained it to produce the corresponding image as output. Again, the latter image was known—it was what the subject was looking at when his or her brain activity was measured—so the trick consists merely in getting the ANN to produce a similar-enough copy of the image. We say that the image is the target output of the ANN during training, which it should produce when given the corresponding EEG data as input.

The ANN's training goes something like this: imagine that the input is just a number—say, 5—and the target output another number—say, 21. What you then want is to configure the ANN such that, when it is given 5 as input, it produces 21 at the output. The function the ANN is configured to perform could be as simple as to multiply the input by 4 and then add 1. In other words, the ANN could simply implement the function f(input) = 4 x input + 1. When the input is 5, we get f(5) = 4 x 5 + 1 = 21. 'Training' the ANN consists in finding this function f(input) through directed trial and error, so the ANN matches the target output. Once it's found, the function constitutes an ad hoc mapping between input and output data. It enriches and processes the input until it adds up to the target output.

In the case of the Russian study, instead of a single number as input, the ANN receives an array of numbers corresponding to each EEG measurement. Instead of a single number as target output, the ANN receives an array of numbers corresponding to the images. And then, instead of just one pair of input / target output, it receives several training pairs—that is, a series of EEG measurements, each with its corresponding image—so the function f(input) generalizes for a variety of inputs. Yet, the essence of what happens during training is what I described in the previous paragraph. The ANN implements an ad hoc mapping between EEG data and target image. It enriches and processes the EEG data until it adds up to the target image.

The figure below, from the Russian paper, illustrates the images the ANN was trained to produce (two upper rows) and the images the ANN actually produced. Notice how training gets the ANN to produce images pretty similar to the target ones.

That the ANN manages to do this is no miracle; it is in fact trivial, the straightforward result of having been trained to do so with actual images. The ANN doesn't magically deduce visual qualities from electrochemical patterns of brain activity; it doesn't bridge the explanatory gap; it already receives images from the researchers to begin with, who knew what the subject was looking at. The ANN outputs images because it was already shown images during its training, so it just learned to copy them when given EEG data as input. That's all. It generates roughly the right images because it has been forced—during training—to find an ad hoc mathematical way to process and enrich EEG data so as to produce certain sequences of numbers that can be visualized, by you and me, as images. As a matter of fact, as far as the ANN is concerned there actually aren't images at all, just sets of numbers that—it so happens—you and I, conscious human beings, can interpret as images.

The next step in the Russian study was to—after training—present the ANN with new EEG patterns that it had not yet seen during training. The idea is to check if the ANN has learned enough to extrapolate from what it has seen and make inferences when it is presented with new inputs—that is, to check if the ad hoc mapping between EEG data and images, produced during training, remains valid for data not used during the training. If the training was effective, the images the ANN will then produce will be similar to the images the subject was actually being shown when the new EEG measurements were taken. If the training was poor, it will produce images that don't correspond to what the subject was experiencing.

In the figure below, also from the Russian paper, we can see how well the ANN managed to infer the new images. The two upper rows show the images the subject was actually looking at when EEG measurements were performed, and the two lower rows show the images the ANN produced in response to these new EEG readings. The match, though still reasonable, isn't as good as that obtained during training, since now the ANN is trying to guess from data it has never before seen.

By explaining how this whole thing works, I hope to have made it clear to you that none of it has anything to do with the explanatory gap or the hard problem of consciousness; the Russian study, in fact, has no new metaphysical relevance. All it establishes is that there are correlations between patterns of brain activity and inner experience, but this we already knew. Such correlations are also entirely consistent with many other metaphysics aside from materialism (e.g. different versions of panpsychism and idealism account for the same correlations; even some versions of dualism do), so it doesn't privilege materialism at all.

The ANN produces images because it was trained with known images to begin with. It succeeds in linking EEG data to images because it was trained on the EEG measurements of subjects who were actually looking at the images. So it merely leverages the fact that the researchers already knew what the subjects were experiencing to begin with. The ANN presupposes the subject's experiences in its training set, it doesn't explain them at all. Do you see the point?

Insofar as it merely assumes the qualities of experience to begin with, brain image extraction technology doesn't explain these qualities. It can't explain that which it presupposes. All it does is to find a mathematical function that links two sets of data (inputs and outputs); it doesn't even begin to explain how qualities can emerge or be produced by quantifiable physical parameters.

Introducing 'Decoding Schopenhauer's Metaphysics'

My new book, Decoding Schopenhauer's Metaphysics (DSM), is now available for pre-ordering from amazon UK, amazon USA, and other retailers as well. In this post, I want to give you a brief overview of the book, tell you why I wrote it and why I think it is important.


After I finished The Idea of the World—over a year before the book was actually published—I started an effort to trace my ideas back to their historical predecessors and anchor them in the Western philosophical tradition. In regard to 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, I took it light at first and read Christopher Janaway's little book Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction. I describe this experience, and what happened next, in DSM:
In the many quotes of Schopenhauer’s works included in [Janaway's] book, I believed to discern—to my surprise—clear similarities with the metaphysics laid out in my own work. Naturally, I felt his points were compelling. Yet, Janaway peppered his book with criticisms of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics. What he seemed to be making—or failing to make—of Schopenhauer’s words was quite different from what I thought to discern in them. Janaway saw problems and contradictions where I thought to see clarity, elegance and consistency. But since Janaway is the professed expert and I was just perusing quotes out of context, I initially suspected I was reading too much into them.

The only way to clarify the issue was to sink my teeth into Schopenhauer’s magnum opus: the two-volume, 1,200-page-long third edition of The World as Will and Representation [1859], in the same translation that Janaway himself used. ... In the ensuing months, I devoured the lengthy two-volume set, reading and re-reading it. I recognized in it numerous echoes and prefigurations of ideas I had labored for a decade to bring into focus. The kinship between my own work and what I was now reading was remarkable, down to details and particulars. Here was a famous 19th century thinker who had already figured out and communicated, in a clear and cogent manner, much of the metaphysics I had been working on. What better ally could I have found? And yet, bewilderingly to me, Schopenhauer’s “metaphysics has had few followers” (Janaway 2002: 40). Its utter failure to impact on our culture for the past 200 years is self-evident to even the most casual observer.
With DSM, I try to change this, for I think there is tremendous value in Schopenhauer's legacy for a 21st century readership, particularly in the modern context of quantum mechanics and the 'hard problem of consciousness':
I believe Schopenhauer’s most valuable legacy is precisely his metaphysical views: they anticipate salient recent developments in analytic philosophy, circumvent the insoluble problems of mainstream physicalism and constitutive panpsychism, and provide an avenue for making sense of the ontological dilemmas of quantum mechanics. ... Had the coherence and cogency of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics been recognized earlier, much of the underlying philosophical malaise that plagues our culture today—with its insidious effects on our science, cultural ethos and way of life—could have been avoided. (emphasis added)
In the book,
I offer a conceptual framework—a decoding key—for interpreting Schopenhauer’s metaphysical arguments in a way that renders them mutually consistent and compelling. With this key in mind, it is my hope that even those who have earlier dismissed Schopenhauer’s metaphysics will be able to return to it with fresh eyes and at last unlock its sense.


A perfectly legitimate and good question that can be asked of a book about someone else's writings has been put forward by a participant of my discussion forum:
I never understood why would anyone read a book about a book wrote by someone else. ... why not just read the original and use your own mind to decide what the author wanted to say? ... why bother with third parties and not just read the original?
I replied to him by stating that, with DSM, I think I can help to

  1. disambiguate Schopenhauer's conceptually-loose terminology usage;
  2. clarify his argument under the light of modern psychology;
  3. place his ideas in the context of quantum mechanics, inexistent at his time;
  4. relate his discourse to modern issues emerging in ontology and philosophy of mind, which were also inexistent at his time;
  5. summarize and bring together his contentions in a coherent framework articulated in modern language, which people today can easily relate to.
All this said, I do think the best is indeed to read Schopenhauer's own words, if people are willing to face them: Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation alone has 1,200+ very dense pages in tiny fonts, written in an accessible but old-fashioned style. Because I suspect that most people don't have the time or the interest to plow through that, I felt an alternative would be valuable, for I want to make Schopenhauer's thought available to them too. DSM has only 144 pages and costs a fraction of Schopenhauer's original. After reading it, if their curiosity is piqued, the more interested readers can approach Schopenhauer himself with a solid basis for making sense of his words.


I have two main goals with DSM:
on the one hand, I aim to rehabilitate and promote Schopenhauer’s metaphysics by offering an interpretation of it that resolves its apparent contradictions and unlocks the meaning and coherence of its constituent ideas. On the other hand—and on a more self-serving note—I hope to show that my own metaphysical position, as articulated in my earlier works, isn’t peculiar or merely fashionable, but part instead of an established, robust and evolving chain of thought in Western philosophy.


A key element in achieving both goals is my refutations—elaborated upon in detail in DSM—of present-day criticisms and misrepresentations of Schopenhauer's metaphysics, which unfortunately are rampant in academia. As a philosopher who has produced original work myself, the idea of my own writings being one day subjected to the kind of disfiguration and outright abuse suffered by Schopenhauer, at the hands of presumed experts, makes me sick. My sympathy for Schopenhauer compels me to try and improve the standing of his work.

Unfortunately, instead of producing original work of their own, some scholars in academia choose to make a career out of (mis)representing and criticizing dead philosophers' works. That these philosophers are no longer around to defend themselves seems to give license to the scholars in question to pass their own interpretative difficulties for errors on the part of the late philosophers; errors one wouldn't attribute even to a high-school student today. In other words, some critics seem to mistake their own intellectual obtuseness for (completely implausible) shortcomings in the argument of the philosophers they criticize. By presumptuously portraying themselves as intellectually superior, these critics perhaps feel that the recognition hard-earned by their targets—thanks to the latter's original work—rubs off on them.

Christopher Janaway characterizes Schopenahuer's metaphysical contentions as "something ridiculous" or "merely embarrassing," which should be "dismissed as fanciful" if interpreted in the way Schopenhauer clearly intended them to be. He claims that "Schopenhauer seems to stumble into a quite elementary difficulty" in an important passage of his argument. And so on. The freedom Janaway allows himself to bash Schopenhauer, and the arrogant, disrespectful tone with which he does it, are breathtaking. It is so easy to bash a dead man who can't defend himself, isn't it?

Ironically, all this actually accomplishes is to betray the utter failure of Janaway's attempt to grok Schopenhauer. Indeed, his apparent inability to comprehend even the most basic points Schopenhauer makes, and to think within the logic and premises of Schopenhauer's argument, is nothing short of stunning. Here is someone who just doesn't get it at all, and yet feels entitled not only to write books about Schopenhauer; not only to characterize Schopenhauer's argument as "ridiculous," "embarassing" and "fanciful" (Oh, the irony!); but even to edit Schopenhauer's own works! By now Schopenhauer has not only turned in his grave, but strangled himself to a second death.

Even more peculiar is Janaway's suggestion that it is Schopenhauer who is obtuse, for the "elementary difficulties" Janaway attributes to him couldn't be seriously attributed even to a high-school student today, let alone a renowned philosopher. At no point does Janaway seem to stop, reflect and ponder the glaringly obvious possibility that perhaps Schopenhauer does know what he is talking about and it is him (Janaway) who just doesn't get it. Instead, he portrays Schopenhauer as an idiot; how precarious, silly and conceited. He even accuses Schopenhauer of crass materialism, despite Schopenhauer's repeated ridiculing of materialism and the fact that Schopenhauer's whole argument consistently refutes it in unambiguous terms. I discuss all this in detail in DSM. Here it shall suffice to observe that, to be an expert on anything, it takes more than just study; for if one can't actually understand what one is studying, no amount of scholarly citations will turn vain nonsense into literature.

I richly substantiate my criticism of Janaway in DSM: I carefully take his contentions apart, while clarifying Schopenhauer's points in a way that should be clearly understandable even to Janaway. So if you think I am exaggerating in this post, please peruse DSM: it can be leisurely read in a weekend or, with focus, in a single sitting, so it won't cost you much time at all to see whether I actually have a valid point.

Tackling other misrepresentations

Amazingly, some attribute dual-aspect monism to Schopenhauer. Indeed, as of this writing, Wikipedia listed his metaphysics as an instance thereof. I can only imagine two reasons for such a vulgar misunderstanding: either one has read only the title of Schopenhauer's main work (The World as Will and Representation) and arrived at conclusions from it alone, or one doesn't actually know what dual-aspect monism means. Again, I elaborate much more in DSM.


Despite all this, DSM isn't primarily about polemics and refuting misunderstandings and misrepresentations, even though it is about that too. Primarily, it is about elucidating, in a concise and easily-accessible manner, Schopenhauer's extraordinary and sophisticated ideas on the nature of mind and reality; ideas whose plausibility, explanatory power and importance have only increased over the past two centuries. Schopenhauer's work is a veritable metaphysical treasure that deserves much more recognition than it has gotten. Even more importantly, we, 21st-century readers, deserve the gift Schopenhauer has left us as inheritance.

Sometimes, those who preceded us weren't just naive and ignorant, 'primitive' versions of ourselves—as some scholars conceitedly seem to think—but in fact saw farther than most of us do today (including scholars). We ignore and dismiss them at our own peril.

The many in our dreams

Giotto di Bondone's Joachim's Dream (1303-1305). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
As I posted on social media recently, a critical essay of my work has been published, a few days ago, in a Russian newspaper. I know a few words in Russian but can't really read an essay. Yet, Russian-speaking readers told me that one of the criticisms made in it is the following: whereas we can see an interact directly with other people and animals, the different alters of a patient with dissociative identity disorder (DID) can't see or interact directly with each other. Therefore—or so the argument goes—my stating that life, biology, is the image of dissociation in universal consciousness is incoherent.

It so happens that, in my upcoming book on Schopenhauer's metaphysics, I tackle precisely this criticism in the passage reproduced below. In it, by 'universal will' I mean universal consciousness. Since I offer this as a defense of Schopenhauer's metaphysics, the implication is that, in my view, Schopenhauer, too, explains personal identity and life in terms of universal dissociation. I make this case quite extensively in the book, which will very soon be available for pre-ordering.

Soon available for pre-ordering.
Long quote from Decoding Schopenhauer's Metaphysics

A criticism that could be offered at this point is this: whereas we can perceive and interact directly with other individual subjects in ordinary waking life—after all, I can surely see and interact with other people and animals—an alter of a human DID [Dissociative Identity Disorder] patient cannot perceive and interact directly with another alter of the same patient; there is nothing the second alter looks like from the point of view of the first; the first alter cannot reach out and touch the second. So how is it that I can reach out and touch other people and animals if they, like me, are analogous to alters of the universal will?

The key to making sense of this is rigor in interpreting the analogy: we are likening (a) a person with DID to (b) the universal will with something analogous to DID. But remember, unlike the case of the person, there is no external world from the point of view of the universal will. The latter is, ex hypothesi, all there is, all phenomena being internal to it. So we are comparing apples to bananas when we relate the person’s life in the outside world to the entirely endogenous inner life of the universal will. It is much more apt to compare the latter with the person’s dream life, for only then all experiential states in both cases are internally generated, without the influence of an outside world. This, and only this, is a fair analogy.

So what do we know about the dream life of a human DID patient? Can the patient’s different alters share a dream, taking different co-conscious points of view within the dream, just like you and I share a world? Can they perceive and interact with one another within their shared dream, just as people can perceive and interact with one another within their shared environment? As it turns out, there is evidence that this is precisely what happens, as research has shown (Barrett 1994: 170-171). Here is an illustrative case from the literature:
The host personality, Sarah, remembered only that her dream from the previous night involved hearing a girl screaming for help. Alter Annie, age four, remembered a nightmare of being tied down naked and unable to cry out as a man began to cut her vagina. Ann, age nine, dreamed of watching this scene and screaming desperately for help (apparently the voice in the host’s dream). Teenage Jo dreamed of coming upon this scene and clubbing the little girl’s attacker over the head; in her dream he fell to the ground dead and she left. In the dreams of Ann and Annie, the teenager with the club appeared, struck the man to the ground but he arose and renewed his attack again. Four year old Sally dreamed of playing with her dolls happily and nothing else. Both Annie and Ann reported a little girl playing obliviously in the corner of the room in their dreams. Although there was no definite abuser-identified alter manifesting at this time, the presence at times of a hallucinated voice similar to Sarah’s uncle suggested there might be yet another alter experiencing the dream from the attacker’s vantage. (Barrett 1994: 171)
Taking this at face value, what it shows is that, while dreaming, a dissociated human mind can manifest multiple, concurrently conscious alters that experience each other from second- and third-person perspectives, just as you and I can shake hands with one another in ordinary waking life. The alters’ experiences are also mutually consistent, in the sense that the alters all seem to perceive the same series of events, each alter from its own individual subjective perspective. The correspondences with the experiences of individual people sharing an outside world are self-evident and require no further commentary.

Clearly, our empirical grasp of extreme forms of dissociation shows that a DID-like process at a universal scale is, at least in principle, a viable explanation for how individual subjects arise within the universal will. Whether the cognitive mechanisms underlying dissociation are also conceptually understood today is but a secondary question: whatever these mechanisms may be, we know empirically that they do exist in nature and produce precisely the right effects to explain the illusion of individuality posited by Schopenhauer. In this regard—and in many others as well—Schopenhauer’s metaphysics is empirically plausible.

The sincere art of obfuscation: A rebuttal of Keith Frankish

Vassily Kandinsky's 'segment blue,' 1921 (cropped).
Could it be that your experience of seeing these rich colors doesn't actually exist?
After my publication of a rebuttal of Michael Graziano's latest essay yesterday, a Twitter exchange followed with philosopher Keith Frankish. It turns out that Frankish holds a very similar position to Graziano's: he, too, argues that subjective experience, phenomenality, is an illusion. This is called the 'illusionist' position in philosophy of mind. In the online exchange, Keith invited me to point out what is wrong with his ideas, as expressed in an online essay on aeon Magazine:

As most of you know, I have little respect for the illusionist view, considering it self-evidently absurd. Well, in all honesty, I actually don't have any respect at all for it. But it is legitimate for Frankish to ask me to point out, explicitly, where I think his argument goes wrong. After all, having criticized his position publicly, I feel obliged now to be quite specific and explicit about my points. Moreover, Frankish writes in a sober tone and articulates his argument fairly carefully. The attitude he brings to the debate renders his work deserving of careful consideration, at least one time. So here we go.


While setting up the context of his argument, Frankish correctly highlights a premise of the physicalist metaphysics, but incorrectly conflates it with science:
For science tells us that objects don’t have such qualitative properties, just complex physical ones of the sort described by physics and chemistry. The atoms that make up the skin of the apple aren’t red.
I don't think science says this at all. Instead, it studies and describes the behavior of nature. As such, it doesn't make—and fundamentally cannot make, as its empirical methodology cannot address such questions—assertions about the metaphysical status of any properties. Science simply describes the behavior of objects and phenomena as they appear to our observation. Such descriptions entail measurable physical and chemical quantities, but that doesn't entail or imply a metaphysical exclusion of qualities from nature.

Having said that, it is entirely true that the metaphysics of physicalism is premised on the notion that all qualities are generated by the brain and, as such, cannot exist out there in objects, but only inside our heads. Frankish's assertion quoted above is consistent with his physicalism, but it illegitimately co-opts the success of science as if physicalism were implied by it. While a common move, this is wrong.


Insisting on his conflation of physicalism with science, Frankish claims:
It is phenomenal consciousness that I believe is illusory. For science finds nothing qualitative in our brains, any more than in the world outside. The atoms in your brain aren’t coloured and they don’t compose a colourful inner image.
He elaborates beyond the quote above, but the complete essence of his point is already captured in it. The argument structure is this:

  1. Physical things, in themselves, have no qualitative properties (like color, flavor, tone, etc.). Only our perceptions of them do;
  2. The brain is a physical thing;
  3. From (1) and (2), the brain has no qualitative properties;
  4. Our experiences are reducible to our brain;
  5. From (3) and (4), our experiences cannot entail qualitative properties.
Ergo, qualitative properties—phenomenality, subjective experiences—cannot exist; they must, instead, be an illusion. The question-begging here is rather obvious: step (4) in the argument structure above presupposes the metaphysics of physicalism, which is precisely the point in contention.

Ironically, what Frankish actually accomplishes in his argument structure is to highlight an implication of physicalism that reduces it to absurdity.

More question-begging

Frankish proceeds to argue against two alternative metaphysics: property dualism—the view that the brain has both physical and qualitative properties—and the view that qualitative properties are merely how physical properties present themselves to introspection, being, therefore, ultimately just physical.

He rejects property dualism by arguing that the physical world is causally-closed and, therefore, the additional qualitative properties are useless and can presumably be dismissed on parsimony grounds. Then he rejects that qualitative properties are merely appearances of physical properties because
it is not just that introspection fails to present sensations as brain states; it positively presents them as utterly unlike brain states
I concur with Frankish's conclusion that both alternatives are incorrect, even though I'd be a lot more cautious than him about claiming that the physical world is causally-closed. At a microscopic level, all quantum mechanical events are undetermined. Only at a macroscopic, statistical level do regularities emerge that allow us to speak of causality. Moreover, laboratory experiments, by virtue of their very need to isolate experimental conditions from unknown factors, may exclude non-local organizing principles in nature that may not be describable as physical causality (cf. e.g. this).

Be that as it may, my point here is different: all alternatives considered by Frankish assume physical realism; that is, the notion that there are non-experiential things out there. This is a premise of physicalism and certain variants of panpsychism, but not of other metaphysics. Objective idealism, for instance, while granting that there is indeed a world out there, maintains that such a world is itself constituted by transpersonal phenomenal states. These transpersonal states simply present themselves to us as the qualities on the screen of perception, in a qualitative transition that occurs for reasons I've discussed on Scientific American. This completely avoids the impossible transition from one ontological category to another, as the fact that certain qualities of experience modulate other qualities of experience is empirically trivial (it happens e.g. every time your thoughts affect your emotions, or the other way around). Finally, a very strong case can be made that physical realism has already been refuted by experimental physics anyway, as I've discussed also on Scientific American here and here.

Whatever the case, Frankish's argument begs the question of metaphysics by simply assuming a key premise of physicalism contested by other metaphysics. At best, his argument refutes other variations of physicalism, but says nothing about e.g. objective idealism.

Internal inconsistency

By rejecting that qualitative properties are introspective appearances of the physical brain and taking physical realism as a given, Frankish concludes that only illusionism can be true: introspection misrepresents the physical states of the brain, thereby generating the illusion of qualitative properties. We've already seen above how the path he took to arrive at this conclusion begs the question in more than one way. I shall argue now that, in addition to this, Frankish's elaboration is also internally inconsistent.

To begin with, I can't resist pointing something out that has already been pointed out by many others. Consider this passage by Frankish:
Think of watching a movie. What your eyes are actually witnessing is a series of still images rapidly succeeding each other. But your visual system represents these images as a single fluid moving image. The motion is an illusion. Similarly, illusionists argue, your introspective system misrepresents complex patterns of brain activity as simple phenomenal properties. The phenomenality is an illusion.
Frankish is very clear that what his argument tries to deny is the very existence of qualities, experience, phenomenal states. But since illusions are themselves phenomenal states—after all, they are experienced—they are already instances of the very thing whose existence Frankish is trying to deny. The appeal to illusions immediately disproves Frankish's whole point. He explicitly addresses this objection towards the end of his essay, and I will deal with his answer towards the end of mine, in the last section below.

For now, though, let us charitably interpret the reference to illusions as a metaphorical effort to evoke a certain familiar intuition, and see where Frankish goes with it:
it is useful to us to have an overview or ‘edited digest’ (Dennett’s phrase) of [our brain] processes – a sense of the overall shape of our complex, dynamic interaction with the world. When we speak of what our experiences are like, we are referring to this sense, this edited digest.
The point here is that, when we introspect, what we experience aren't the original brain processes as they are in themselves, but an inaccurate, distorted, "edited digest" of these processes. This is the basis for Frankish's claim that experiences are illusions: they are misportrayals of that which they represent, i.e. physical brain states.

There is at least one obvious problem with this, though. Misportrayals as they may be, since Frankish's basic premise is that only physical states exist, these 'edited digests' must themselves consist of physical states; what else could they be? And so we end up with the exact same question we started with: How is it that these latter physical states—i.e. the brain states corresponding to the misportrayals—are presented as something utterly unlike brain states?

It seems to me that, to answer this question within Frankish's own logic, we need to postulate a meta-introspective system that misportrays the misportrayals. But then such meta-misportrayals will also necessarily consist of physical brain states, for there is nothing else they can consist of under Frankish's premises. So we need a meta-meta-introspective system that misportrays the misportrayals of the misportrayals... Well, you get the picture.

Frankish's effort to add a physical layer of indirection to explain how presumably physical states can present themselves as qualitative properties is like trying to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps; it just can't do the magic Frankish wants it to do. Adding the indirection brings things no closer to a solution; it merely ends up confronting the exact same problem—intact—that it started with.

No amount of physical indirection can make the physical seem phenomenal, just as no amount of extra speakers can make a stereo seem like television; these two domains are incommensurable. All Frankish accomplishes with his step of indirection is to postpone the inevitable, final confrontation with the real problem at hand. Yet, by obfuscating the innate simplicity of the issue, these indirections can create the impression that some profound, penetrating philosophical insight lies hidden behind them. But none does; it's all smoke and mirrors, as I shall argue in more detail below.

More internal inconsistency

Even Frankish's chosen metaphor actually illustrates no more than the untenability of his thesis:
In Consciousness Explained (1991), Dennett draws a comparison with a computer’s user interface, with its icons for files, folders, waste basket and so on. This is a fiction created for the benefit of the user (a ‘user illusion’). By manipulating the icons, we can easily control the computer without knowing anything about its programming or hardware. Similarly, representations of phenomenal properties are simplified, schematic representations of the underlying reality, which we can use for the purposes of self-control. We should no more expect to find phenomenal properties in our brains than to find folders and waste baskets inside our laptops.
Let us interpret this strictly according to Frankish's own premises and logic, so as not to misrepresent his case: the user interface (UI) is a fiction that (mis)represents e.g. computer files. The latter are patterns of open and closed microelectronic switches in a silicon memory chip inside the computer. But they are presented to the user, through the UI, in the convenient form of little icons. The files aren't icons—they are patterns of open and closed microelectronic switches—yet the UI's (mis)representation is convenient for the user.

So far so good. One can go further down this line of reasoning and observe that, just as the actual computer files, the UI, too, is purely physical: the pattern of pixels that makes up the icons on the screen also consists of open and closed microelectronic switches in both a memory chip inside the computer and the LCD screen that displays the icons to the user. In other words, the UI example shows that a first set of physical states (the actual files) is (mis)represented by a second set of physical states. The states in the second set are different from the states in the first set, which accounts for the fact that icons are different from the actual computer files; but all states are physical and will never look like anything other than physicality.

Transposing this to our problem, a first set of brain states—corresponding to e.g. brain signals processing visual information—is (mis)represented by a second set of brain states, the latter playing the role of UI. These sets differ in that the brain states comprised in them differ. But they are all still brain states; they are all still physical. There is nothing in Frankish's metaphor that provides any intuition for how something physical can end up looking like something phenomenal.

Indeed, the metaphor only seems cogent because it cheats: its evocative power rests in the transition from abstract physical states hidden inside a computer chip to the experience of seeing the computer screen with its icons. But by visualizing this transition we are already using that which Frankish claims not to exist: phenomenal states, qualitative properties, experiences. To be strictly consistent with Frankish's logic, we must imagine that no one is there to look at the computer screen. Then, we are left only with the physical states inside the computer chip and those of the LCD screen. There are no qualitative properties anywhere, only physical states. Now, without someone to look at the screen, does the metaphor do what Frankish wants it to do?

You see, the unintended cheat—for I believe Frankish is cheating himself too, insofar as he sincerely believes his own argument—is that the metaphor implicitly appeals precisely to the very thing whose existence Frankish wants to deny. Therein resides its entire evocative power. Once you see it, the metaphor not only collapses, but its meaning also reverses: no amount of physical representation of the physical can create the appearance of phenomenality.

Some more commentary

Frankish begins now to conclude his argument:
If we observe something science can’t explain, then the simplest hypothesis is that it’s an illusion, especially if it can be observed only from one particular angle. This is exactly the case with phenomenal consciousness.
Except that, in the case of phenomenal consciousness, an illusion is already an instance of phenomenal consciousness, the very thing Frankish denies. Moreover, there are other metaphysics that place the observable dynamisms, patterns and regularities of phenomenal consciousness firmly within the framework of science (see e.g. my own work here, which has been summarized in a popular essay on Scientific American). Therefore, the claim that we have to deny phenomenality because "science can't explain" it is completely bogus; it arises merely from an apparent inability to look at the problem from a different angle, with at least fewer unexamined assumptions.

Frankish seems to be so closed up in his box of implicit assumptions he can't see any alternative but to deny the most obvious. Consider this long paragraph, which Frankish presents as a reason to believe in illusionism. I will quote it in full because I find it so remarkable:
A second argument concerns our awareness of phenomenal properties. We are aware of features of the natural world only if we have a sensory system that can detect them and generate representations of them for use by other mental systems. This applies equally to features of our own minds (which are parts of the natural world), and it would apply to phenomenal properties too, if they were real. We would need an introspective system that could detect them and produce representations of them. Without that, we would have no more awareness of our brains’ phenomenal properties than we do of their magnetic properties. In short, if we were aware of phenomenal properties, it would be by virtue of having mental representations of them. But then it would make no difference whether these representations were accurate. Illusory representations would have the same effects as veridical ones. If introspection misrepresents us as having phenomenal properties then, subjectively, that’s as good as actually having them. Since science indicates that our brains don’t have phenomenal properties, the obvious inference is that our introspective representations of them are illusory.
For all I know our phenomenal properties—i.e. our subjective experiences—indeed do misrepresent something, either physical states or other phenomenal states corresponding to the world outside or certain aspects of our body. But even then they are still phenomenal. One can't deny phenomenality merely by arguing that phenomenality misrepresents something, for this presupposes the phenomenality that misrepresents something.

Rebutting rebuttals

Frankish then begins to preemptively answer possible objections to his thesis. He starts with the objection that our knowledge of the world begins with consciousness, and so consciousness cannot be an illusion. He argues against this by saying that a simple robot would have only sensors and actuators, and only more sophisticated robots, evolved from the simple one, would develop a meta-cognitive introspective system like consciousness. He claims that the same applies to us, so consciousness is not primary but evolved.

One of many problems with this hand-waving argument is that phenomenal consciousness does not need introspection to exist; by assuming that phenomenal consciousness is restricted to its introspective mode, Frankish already makes a mistake. I elaborated on this in both a technical paper and, in summarized form, in Scientific American essay.

The gist of the point is this: introspection—our ability to know and report that  we have an experience—is a metacognitive configuration on top of phenomenal consciousness proper. We know through e.g. the no-report paradigms of modern neuroscience that there can be phenomenal states beyond the field of metacognitive introspection. These states are experienced, even though subjects do not know that they experience them, and so cannot report them; not even to themselves. Once one sees that phenomenal consciousness is in fact more basic than introspection, Frankish's argument here, which is already hand-waving to begin with, collapses.

The grand finale

In answer to the objection that phenomenal states cannot be illusions insofar as illusions are themselves phenomenal states, Frankish has this to say, as a kind of grand closure of this argument:
This looks like a serious objection, but in fact it is easily dealt with. Properties of experiences themselves cannot be illusory in the sense described, but they can be illusory in a very similar one. When illusionists say that phenomenal properties are illusory, they mean that we have introspective representations like those that we would have if our experiences had phenomenal properties. And we can have such representations even if our experiences don’t have phenomenal properties. Of course, this assumes that the representations themselves don’t have phenomenal properties. But, as I noted, representations needn’t possess the properties they represent. Representations of redness needn’t be red, and representations of phenomenal properties needn’t be phenomenal.
I find this passage truly remarkable, but not for the reasons Frankish would presumably like me to. Let's dissect it: Frankish begins by acknowledging that "properties of experiences themselves cannot be illusory in the sense described." This seems quite final to me: the sense described suffices to prove that experiences themselves exist, even if "they can be illusory in a very similar" but other sense. If the sense in which experiences themselves must exist suffices to show that they do exist, whatever other sense in which they may be said to not exist is irrelevant to the point in contention. But let's proceed and see where Frankish takes us.

The sentences that follow are an unsurpassed accomplishment in presumably well-meaning, sincere, but tortuous obfuscation and confused thinking. You should not feel bad if you can't make heads or tails of them, for I had to re-read them several times to see where Frankish is trying to go. What he is saying is that, whether we have actual experiences—phenomenal properties—or not, everything happens as if we had them. That he thinks this answers the objection baffles me, for it in fact succumbs to the exact same objection: for things to happen as if we had experiences, it must seem to us as though we did have them, even if we don't. But Good Lord, the seeming is already an experience. The introspective representations must themselves be phenomenal, otherwise there would be no seeming. Yet there obviously is seeming, for what is an illusion but a factually wrong seeming? If he thinks there is no seeming, why is Frankish trying so hard to convince you that what seems to be the case actually isn't?

Frankish is tying himself up in knots to somehow avoid what is obvious to just about everyone else. It is remarkable and at the same time painful to follow his argument as he buries himself in conceptual confusion. That he claims that the original objection has been "easily dealt with" in this manner is ironic to say the least.

And then he admits:
But how does a brain state represent a phenomenal property? This is a tough question.
Oh! All right!

You see, under Frankish's premises, the question isn't "tough;" it is by construction impossible: for him there are no real phenomenal properties; it just seems as though there were. This seeming is created by said brain representation or state, which misportrays other brain states. Now, how can a brain state create the seeming if seeming—i.e. phenomenality—is not allowed to begin with?  Talk about internal contradictions and conceptual confusion...

Frankish's entire case rests on at least a tentative answer to the question above; without it, there is nothing, just smoke and mirrors. But he just says it is "a tough question"... Oh well.

Undeterred, as if he had accomplished anything at all with everything he has said thus far, Frankish continues:
I think the answer should focus on the state’s effects. A brain state represents a certain property if it causes thoughts and reactions that would be appropriate if the property were present.
Blatant question-begging again. Only under physicalist premises could effects sufficiently account for the question Frankish is leaving open. What defines phenomenal states is precisely that, regardless of their effects, there is something it is like to be in them. By claiming the above Frankish is arguing circularly. But he goes on:
I won’t try to develop this answer here.
Only the answer to this question is substantive for the argument he is trying to make. By not even trying to answer it, Frankish rests his entire case on pure hand-waving. He argues that
it is not only illusionists who must address this problem. The notion of mental representation is a central one in modern cognitive science, and explaining how the brain represents things is a task on which all sides are engaged. ... There is a challenge here for illusionism but not an objection.
I find this nonsensical for a very simple reason: yes, everybody has to account for representation; but only illusionists have to account for it by acknowledging that we seem to have experience while denying experience. How can a physical state be 'seeming' when there is no seeming?

This is what makes their case impossible. Nobody else faces the same problem. An objective idealist, for instance, must account simply for how certain phenomenal states represent other phenomenal states. There is no ontological bridge to be crossed and thus nothing fundamentally difficult about it: our thoughts can trivially represent our emotions by e.g. naming and describing them. An eliminativist—i.e. one who denies experience without even bothering to account for some kind of 'illusion of experience'—only has to show how some physical states represent other, different physical states, which computers do all the time by the use of variables and pointers. The claim that everybody faces the same challenge here is simply untrue, and rather obviously so.

Frankish has accomplished precisely nothing in his long essay; at least nothing more than tortuous obfuscation and hand-waving.

Final thoughts

I started writing this essay with the sincere intention to be charitable, open and understanding. But I finish it now with the overwhelming impression that I have been commenting on a charade. Quite honestly, sincere as Frankish's effort may be, I do think the whole thing is indeed an outright charade, a farce, veiled in conceptual complexity and obfuscation.

Yet I don't think Frankish and other illusionists are malicious about it (perhaps it would do them less dishonor if I thought they were). I think they themselves are caught up in their own charade, drinking their own Kool-Aid to a degree they don't even suspect. Illusionism and eliminativism, in my view, are veritable psychological case-studies on how the human mind finds baffling ways to deceive itself so to defend its own prejudices. I say this with absolute sincerity, in that I truly believe it; it's not to sarcastically deride anyone. I just can't, for the life of me, fathom how otherwise intelligent and educated people can tie themselves up into so much sheer nonsense.

Trying to elucidate this psychological conundrum is, perhaps, the real discussion to be had, after all.

The desperate art of obfuscation: A rebuttal of Michael Graziano

The ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is a well-acknowledged roadblock in efforts to explain subjective experience in terms of brain function: there is nothing about physical things in terms of which we could deduce the qualities of experience. More specifically, nothing we can observe about the arrangement of atoms constituting the brain reveals what it feels like to see red, to fall in love or to have a belly ache.

Whereas neuroscience has been able to pin down correlations between brain function and reported experience, the hypothesized causal link between the two remains elusive. This has turned the solution to the hard problem—if there is one—into the most coveted trophy in neuroscience. As argued in my book Brief Peeks Beyond, the intractability of the problem has even led some to resort to semantic games and claim that consciousness doesn’t really exist.

The absurdity of the notion that consciousness is an illusion—after all, illusions are experiences too, thus presupposing consciousness—has been recently chronicled by Galen Strawson and, more colorfully, David Bentley Hart. So one would have hoped that the time has finally come to move the debate forward along productive lines. Yet the appeal of the trophy seems too irresistible to some. And so it is that neuroscientist Michael Graziano, having not so long ago proclaimed that “consciousness doesn’t happen. It is a mistaken construct,” is at it again.

Graziano starts his latest narrative by correctly defining what is meant by ‘consciousness’ in the context of the hard problem: “it isn’t just the stuff in your head. It is the subjective experience of some of that stuff.” Exactly. Consciousness entails the subjective experiences that somehow accompany the physical stuff going on in your head. So if he is going to claim a solution to the hard problem, Graziano has to explain how these experiences arise from the stuff.

His argument rests on the idea that consciousness is adaptive, that it performs a function useful for survival. Indeed, it is undoubtedly beneficial to recognize and understand ourselves as agents in our environment—i.e. to have a model of ourselves—if we are to thrive. Graziano then argues that consciousness is one such a model the brain constructs of itself, so it can “monitor and control itself.” Consciousness seems immaterial simply because, in order to focus attention on survival-relevant tasks, this model fails to incorporate any detail of brain anatomy and physiology. In his words, “the brain describes a simplified version of itself, then reports this as a ghostly, non-physical essence.”

This sounds very cogent, an impression that is only reinforced by Graziano’s persuasive writing. The problem is that it is all a smokescreen.

The seemingly authoritative argumentation disguises a deceptive sleight of hand: Graziano implicitly changes the meaning he attributes to the word ‘consciousness’ as he develops his argument. He starts by talking about subjective experience—which philosophers call ‘phenomenal consciousness’—just to end up explaining something else entirely: our ability to cognize ourselves as subjects and re-represent our own mental contents. His initial definition of consciousness is relevant to the hard problem, but the one he actually uses isn’t. Creating a model of our own minds and enabling re-representation are ‘easy problems,’ which can be tackled with recursive information processing architectures. Graziano has provided us with exactly nothing as far as the “true nature of consciousness” is concerned.

Indeed, tackling the easy problems has already been done, for instance, by Pentti Haikonen at Nokia Research as early as in 2003. Haikonen’s and Graziano’s approaches merely presuppose phenomenal consciousness; they don’t explain it at all. Once raw experience is assumed to be in place, then—and only then—do their theories help make sense of how such experience can be configured so to enable reflective introspection and a felt conception of itself.

What Graziano describes as an “ethereal essence”—and then proceeds to explain in neuroscientific terms—is merely a colloquial definition of ‘consciousness,’ one that regards it as some kind of non-physical personal entity akin to a ‘soul.’ But this, of course, is not what is meant by ‘consciousness’ in the technical context of the hard problem. There, ‘consciousness’ refers to what it feels like to taste strawberries, lift a heavy bag or hit your head against a wall. These qualities aren’t “ethereal” (try the wall if you doubt me), but the very embodiment of concreteness.

What Graziano tentatively solves isn’t the hard problem, but something relatively trivial. Yet it is doubtful he would have gotten as much press as he does had he not positioned his work as tackling the hard problem. The grandiose claim in the title of his essay—“solving the biggest mystery of your mind”—is a charade.

You see, a model of one’s own mind—which relies on metacognition—is by no means equivalent to phenomenal consciousness. As I’ve discussed earlier, experience can happen without metacognition and metacognition can happen without experience. Philosophers call the latter ‘access consciousness’ and there is no hard problem about it.

It is entirely plausible, for instance, that lower animals experience the qualities of seeing, touching, etc., without metacognition. I don’t think my cats walk around pondering the inexplicable mystery of their ethereal self. Yet, if I step on their tail by accident, I am inclined to believe they actually experience something unpleasant. Therefore, by tackling metacognition and self-referential mental models, Graziano’s argument says nothing about how my cats’ experiences could possibly arise from brain function. His claims in this regard are “smoke and mirrors,” as he—ironically enough—characterizes other approaches to consciousness.

And as if this weren’t enough, Graziano goes on to argue, “a major advantage of this [i.e. his] idea is that it gives a simple reason … for why the trait of consciousness would evolve in the first place.” But insofar as what he means by ‘consciousness’ is phenomenal consciousness, the claim is nonsensical. Evolution is about structure and function: organisms evolve certain structures because the functions they perform increase the organisms’ chances of surviving and reproducing in their environment. None of these structures and functions needs to be accompanied by experience to be effective. From an evolutionary standpoint—and under physicalist premises—all functions could be performed ‘in the dark;' for since the environment and other living beings can't discern a conscious agent from a philosophical zombie, inner experience is always superfluous as far as adaptation is concerned.

If, on the other hand, what Graziano means by ‘consciousness’ is metacognition, attention, symbolic thinking or any high-level cognitive function, the appeal to evolutionary advantages is legitimate. But then his point is unrelated to the hard problem. He can’t have it both ways. Whatever appeal Graziano’s argument may have, it relies on conceptual confusion.

Perhaps because the hard problem renders the mainstream physicalist narrative untenable, when it comes to attempts to solve it scholars and the media alike seem to tolerateand even cheerfully rave abouta level of thinking that in other fields would be ridiculed instead of published; end careers instead of progressing them. What passes for sophisticated, erudite but difficult-to-understand theories are often simply what they seem to be: pitiful amalgamations of obfuscation, bad logic, linguistic sleights of hand and conceptual muddle. If so, we owe ourselves the decency of calling them what they are: baloney.