On changes of mind


During the past couple of weeks, I've had conversations with a few people whose metaphysical views have changed considerably recently, sometimes multiple times over. Two are well known: Tim Freke and Philip Goff. Tim was a kind of idealist for 34 published books but is now, seemingly, a neutral monist. Philip was a cosmopsychist (a kind of idealist, too) until his book Consciousness and Fundamental Reality (2017) but is now a constitutive panpsychist, as per his most recent book, Galileo's Error (2019). These interactions have motivated me to ponder a bit about changes of mind.

What I have to say below, although inspired by these interactions, is general considerations not necessarily applicable to the two people I've just mentioned. Allow me to insist: the below should not be per se regarded as a criticism of Tim or Philip; it's just general considerations.

The ability to change one's own mind is, undeniably, a sign of intellectual honesty. People who refuse to change their minds even in light of overwhelming new evidence or argumentation have an axe to grind, second agendas, and aren't committed to truth. These people aren't to be taken seriously.

At the same time, relatively fast and easy changes of mind may also reflect superficial views held lightly, the lax taking of positions before more careful review of both the data and the arguments available; before thinking things through more thoroughly. If one adopts a position either in favor or against a certain view before actually understanding that view and its implications thoroughly, one is of course more prone to changing one's mind about it at some point. There is thus a sense in which changes of mind aren't just a sign of intellectual honesty, but potentially also of intellectual laxity.

That's why I think authors should not rush to publish their views. One's views must mature inside, gain robustness in the furnace of repeated contemplation, like metal annealing. If publications are made before one actually understands the ins and outs of one's own position, one is liable to contradicting oneself again and again, in subsequent publications, thereby losing credibility. After all, if one can quickly abandon and turn on one's own previous arguments, how credible are one's next arguments?

A similar rationale may apply to what we commonly refer to as 'open-mindedness.' The latter is, of course, a good thing: not to be open-minded is to ignore the potential for getting closer to truth; to ignore evidence and arguments one may not have considered before. But too much of a good thing can also be a sign of some underlying problem: to be open-minded about mutually contradictory views reflects a lack of analytic rigor and thoroughness, an inability to understand the deeper implications of the different views in question. To be open-minded about views that contradict one's own may also betray lightly-held positions one is not really confident of for not having done enough homework about. In summary, too much open-mindedness can be a sign of superficial reasoning.

I believe strongly that I am open-minded, but it won't be easy for you or anyone else to see it from the outside, because I won't lightly declare myself open to views that contradict over 30 years of careful thinking about metaphysics. Indeed, my own analytic idealism has matured in my mind for over 20 years (with the possible exception of my university years, during which metaphysics fell more to the background) prior to my first philosophy publication in 2010. Metaphysics began churning inside me when I was 12 years old, following the death of my father. Slowly, over time, my thoughts on it have congealed and matured. Only when I was 34 did I have enough confidence in the robustness of my ideas to start writing a book about them. By that time, I had already deconstructed my ideas multiple times over, confronted them with all the empirical evidence I could put my hands on, examined every assumption I could identify, dissected the logical structure of my conclusions repeatedly. And in doing all that, I never had publication as a goal, for the motivation behind my effort was my own understanding. Only after my thoughts congealed and I achieved a very high degree of confidence in them, did the idea of publishing come to me.

Largely thanks to that, none of my 12 books (out of which 3 are still in production) contradict another. Instead, my books complement each other, refine each other's ideas with new angles, new language, new perspectives. This doesn't mean that I can't change my mind; I surely can, if confronted with new evidence or previously overlooked arguments. But I don't think this will happen easily, for there are now 34 years of careful and self-critical analysis behind them. Whatever makes me change my mind now would have to be something nontrivial, for I don't think I've overlooked the evidence and arguments commonly available. My currently-held positions aren't merely a reflection of my current dispositions and moods, but the compound result of decades of careful thinking, an edifice built slowly over many years that won't crumble because of relatively minor earthquakes. And thus the inner coherence of my work isn't a sign of close-mindedness, but of a kind of robustness of reasoning that only time can bring about.

The problem is that, if one's livelihood depends on publishing, as is always the case in academia and often in the book publishing industry as well, one simply doesn't have the luxury to wait 20 years to set one's views to paper. Academics must publish papers and books every year, even if subsequent papers contradict previous ones (nobody looks at that, only at the number of publications). Authors who have no other source of income must publish a new book as soon as the initial spurt of sales of the previous one wanes (books sell most in the first six months after publication). And, of course, all they can publish are their current ideas, whether these are mature, robust and reliable or not. In a sense, I have been privileged by fate to not depend on publications for my living, and so I only published once my thoughts had congealed and stood the test of time.

I don't know how to solve the problems I've identified above. For I have also paid a price for my independence: for the past 10 years, I have had a lot less time to do philosophy than I would have had if philosophy had been my day job. There is always a catch, whatever way one looks upon it. What I can say with high confidence regarding my own output, however, is this: it is robust and reliable; I won't change my views lightly, because they have already stood the test of time in my own mind, and survived the furnace of my own self-criticism for many years before I published them.
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Further reply to Philip Goff



As many of you know, a much-anticipated debate between Philip Goff and me has taken place a couple of weeks ago during the How the Light Gets In philosophy festival, which had its first online-only edition this year. The video below captures the first part of that debate, and I invite you to watch it—it's just under an hour—before continuing this read. The below will still make sense even if you haven't watched the video, but you will get more nuance and motivation if you have.


I believe the points raised during Philip's opening presentation—which he, surprisingly to me, dedicated almost entirely to a criticism of my position, as opposed to a defense of his—were appropriately addressed by me during the event itself, and require no further commentary. There are two other points, however, which came up later in the debate and deserve some more elaboration.

The first point

The first is a criticism I failed to understand during the debate, for reasons I shall discuss shortly. Only after having watched the video above did I grasp the equivalence Philip was trying to draw between the key problem underlying mainstream physicalism and the key problem that, according to him, plagues my approach: in neither case—he claims—does an appeal to evolutionary advantages actually explains the mechanisms underlying an evolved trait.

Under mainstream physicalism, phenomenal consciousness itself is regarded as an evolved trait and, therefore, physicalists argue that it arose because of the accompanying survival advantages (there are none, as I explained here and further elaborated upon here, but never mind). However, physicalists don't explain how phenomenal consciousness supposedly arises from physicality, regardless of how evolutionarily advantageous it may have been. Therefore, it is not enough for physicalists to appeal to evolution; they must make sense of the underlying mechanisms. I agree with that.


Philip is implying that to argue that some qualities can modulate other qualities suffers from a problem equivalent to the 'hard problem of consciousness.' This, of course, is nonsensical, and it surprises me in no small measure that Philip could fall victim to such a glaring mistake.


In my case, the evolved trait is the qualitative transition between transpersonal experiential states 'out there' and the qualities of perception 'in here.' Indeed, I claim that the objective world—as it is in itself—is not constituted by the qualities of perception, but instead by endogenous experiential states more akin to feelings and thoughts than colors and flavors. I maintain that we experience colors and flavors when interacting with the world—instead of thoughts and feelings—because it has been evolutionarily advantageous for us to gather information about the world at a glance, in the form of the screen of perception. Philip then claims that my appeal to evolution suffers from the same or equivalent shortcoming as the physicalists' appeal when trying to account for phenomenal consciousness.

This is blatantly untrue; so much so that I couldn't register—during the debate—that this was what Philip was getting at; I held him in too high regard to even contemplate this possibility. Indeed, Philip is equating the problem of explaining how perceptual qualities (such as color and flavor) arise from other, different qualities (such as transpersonal thoughts and feelings) to the problem of explaining how perceptual qualities arise from quantities. In other words, he is saying that the modulation of perceptual qualities by transpersonal ones suffers from something equivalent to the 'hard problem of consciousness.' This is, of course, nonsensical, and it surprises me in no small measure that Philip could fall victim to such a glaring mistake.

We witness the modulation of qualities by other, different qualities every day: our thoughts constantly modulate our feelings, and the other way around. Thoughts feel completely different than feelings, so there is an obvious qualitative transition taking place when this modulation occurs. Yet, we know that it does occur; all the time. Therefore, it is entirely plausible that transpersonal states qualitatively different from colors and flavors could give rise to the colors and flavors on our screen of perception, through some form of modulation.

Notice that this is fundamentally distinct from the 'hard problem': the latter is characterized by the impossibility to find anything in mere quantities—think of mass, charge, momentum, spin, frequency, amplitude, geometric relationships, etc.—in terms of which we could, at least in principle, deduce the qualities of experience. But in my case we go from qualities to (different) qualities. In our own personal minds, the qualities of the thoughts induced by certain feelings are certainly deducible from the feelings: for instance, the feeling of fear will lead to conservative, pessimistic thought processes and accompanying decision making. Similarly, the qualities of personal perception (such as, say, pleasant warmth and white hues) could, at least in principle, be deduced from the transpersonal phenomenal states they are associated with (such as e.g. peaceful feelings of kindness). There is no fundamental barrier of deducibility as in the hard problem.


To ask how the qualities of perception arise from the transpersonal phenomenal states constituting the objective world is to ask how our sensory organs formed; for, according to analytic idealism, our sensory organs are merely the extrinsic appearance of the associated modulation processes. Therefore, the question is philosophically trivial.


As such, I insisted on answering Philip's challenge in terms of evolution because I failed to see the mistake he was making. Once you understand that there is no ontological jump from quality to quality—just as there isn't one from quantity to quantity—all that is left to do is to explain how the associated mechanisms of modulation arose. This is entirely equivalent to explaining how our eyes, nose, ears, tongue and skin formed, for—according to my analytic idealism—our sense organs are merely the extrinsic appearance of the modulation mechanisms. And, of course, evolutionary biology has excellent explanations for this, all of which I can and do import verbatim into analytic idealism.

Let me belabor this for clarity: to explain how the qualitative transition from transpersonal thoughts and feelings 'out there' to personal perception 'in here' arose is to explain how our sense organs formed. Philip's entire point is philosophically trivial; it has nothing remotely to do with the hard problem. Not every problem that needs an answer is a hard problem in the sense of the... well, 'hard problem.'

The second point

While I remain genuinely surprised at the comparison Philip attempted to draw in his first point, I understand the motivation behind it. Regarding the second point, however, his motivation eludes me: Why insist so vehemently and emotionally that, under mainstream physicalism, phenomenal states, in and of themselves, are still somehow causally-efficacious? Does Philip, as a panpsychist, not understand that the putative causal inefficacy of phenomenal states is precisely a key implication of mainstream physicalism? Isn't a well-known motivation for panpsychism precisely to find a place for phenomenal states in the causal nexus, as discussed e.g. by Gregg Rosenberg in his thesis and part II of his book, A Place for Consciousness? Isn't the putative causal-inefficacy of phenomenal consciousness an implication of mainstream physicalism that has been openly discussed for decades in philosophy? One so uncomfortable it has spawned ridiculous attempts to avoid it through mere word-games?

I feel embarrassed to have to produce citations and quotes to argue for something quite well known in philosophy. Be that as it may, in his 2016 paper Panpsychism and Panprotopsychism, for instance, David Chalmers recapitulates the mainstream physicalist argument that, because the physical world is putatively causally-closed, phenomenal states must be physical states. In other words, because they have no causal efficacy, phenomenal states cannot exist as phenomenal states; instead, all the qualities they entail must be reducible to the quantities of physics.

In less technical words that you, I and the average educated person on the streets can understand, this means that phenomenal states aren't causally-efficacious in and of themselves; whatever causal efficacy they are said to have comes from the physicality they are putatively reducible to, not from their phenomenal character. Allow me to quote relatively extensively from Chalmers' paper:

...many materialists think that the conceivability argument against materialism (and for dualism) is countered by the causal argument against dualism (and for materialism). This argument runs as follows:
(1) Phenomenal properties are causally relevant to physical events.
(2) Every caused physical event has a full causal explanation in physical terms.
(3) If every caused physical event has a full causal explanation in physical terms, every property causally relevant to the physical is itself grounded in physical properties.
(4) If phenomenal properties are grounded in physical properties, materialism is true.
[Ergo,]
(5) Materialism is true.
Here we can say that a property is causally relevant to an event when instantiations of that property are invoked in a correct causal explanation of that event. For example, the high temperatures in Victoria were causally relevant to the Victorian bushfires. A full causal explanation of an event is one that characterizes sufficient causes of the event: causes that guarantee that the event will occur, at least given background laws of nature. Premise (1) is supported by intuitive observation. My being in pain seems to cause my arm to move. If things are as they seem here, then the pain will also be causally relevant to the motion of various particles in my body. Premise (2) follows from a widely held view about the character of physics: physics is causally closed, in that there are no gaps in physical explanations of physical events. Premise (3) is a rejection of a certain sort of overdetermination. Given a full microphysical causal explanation of physical events, other causal explanations are possible only when the factors involved in the latter are grounded in the factors involved in the former (as when we explain the motion of a billiard ball both in terms of another ball and in terms of the particles that make it up). Any putative causal explanation that was not grounded in this way would involve causal overdetermination by independent events. Systematic overdetermination of this sort is widely rejected. Premise (4) is true by definition.

This should make it clear even for academic philosophers.

I surely understand that not all formulations of physicalism will bite this bullet; after all, in the hand-waving conceptual world of academic philosophy one can argue for anything with a straight face, as long as the argument is buried in enough conceptual abstraction to hide its self-evident absurdity. But to suggest—as Philip did repeatedly and emphatically—that I was naively plucking a fallacy out of thin air is both bad form and silly. Why do that? The point here wasn't even the one in contention, just something I touched on en passant while trying to address one of Philip's criticisms of my position.


What we mean by 'phenomenal states' is more than what can be exhaustively described with a list of numbers: what it feels like to see red is more than what is described by the frequency and amplitude of electromagnetic radiation in a certain band of the spectrum. So the question in contention here is whether this extra, which comes in addition to the list of quantities, is causally efficacious. According to mainstream physicalism, it is most definitely not.


Let us be clear: phenomenal states are defined as qualitative states. This, in fact, is why the expression 'phenomenal state' is at all useful: if these states were exhaustively describable in terms of quantities, such as mass, charge, momentum, etc., we wouldn't need to speak of 'phenomenal states' to begin with. That we in fact do shows that what we mean by them is more than what can be exhaustively described with a list of numbers: what it feels like to see red is more than what is described by the frequency and amplitude of electromagnetic radiation in a certain band of the spectrum. So the question in contention here is whether this extra, which comes in addition to the list of quantities, is causally efficacious.

According to mainstream physicalism, it is most definitely not, and it baffles me that Philip denied this. Since the putatively causally-closed equations of physics contain no qualities—only quantities instead—phenomenal states, in and of themselves, cannot be causally efficacious under mainstream physicalism. I emphasize the word 'mainstream'—as I did during the debate—to exclude... well, non-mainstream formulations. Under mainstream physicalism, all qualities are epiphenomenal (side-)effects of brain activity. What is causally efficacious is merely the mass, charge, momentum, geometric relationships, etc., of the elementary particles making up our brain, body and the world at large.

Now, to say that qualities are causally efficacious under mainstream physicalism because they are defined as being identical to quantities is a silly word-game, as I believe every reasonable person will immediately see. Unfortunately, these silly language games are played left and right in academic philosophy, as if they solved anything, did anything, or even meant anything. We know what phenomenal states are; we define matter exhaustively in terms of quantities. To equate qualities to matter is thus to ignore the former; to pretend that they don't exist. Unfortunately for eliminativists and illusionists, the rest of us, sane human beings, know they do.


Since the putatively causally-closed equations of physics contain no qualities—only quantities instead—phenomenal states, in and of themselves, cannot be causally efficacious under mainstream physicalism.


Many academic philosophers love to indulge in these tortuous conceptual games that achieve lift off from the firm ground of reality and end up in some other galaxy. This is no news. But I confess to feeling disappointed at Philip, an academic philosopher I thought would see through this nonsense. I regret that so much energy and time was wasted, during the debate, arguing this silly point; it took the audience's attention away from the substance of the point I was trying to make, and I never got a chance to return to it.

Final comments

Anticipating something that will become clearer after the second part of the debate is published, I also regret that Philip has failed to defend his panpsychism against most—perhaps all—of the criticisms I leveraged against it. For instance, my point about there being no separate elementary particles according to physics—only spatially unbound fields—went wholly unanswered. His very opening statement focused almost exclusively on attacking analytic idealism, as opposed to defending panpsychism. His emotional focus on something at best ancillary to the points in contention—namely, what physicalism does or does not entail or imply—also distracted attention away from substance. All in all, a disappointing experience for me. My debates with Suzan Blackmore and Peter Atkins were, surprisingly, a lot more productive, which you will see for yourself once those are made public (in a few months, I guess and hope).
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No ghost, just a shell: A rejoinder to Keith Frankish


This essay is a rejoinder to Keith Frankish’s reply to my original criticism of illusionism, the notion that consciousness is an illusion.

An initial reflection

In criticizing illusionists such as Frankish, one is always faced with the dilemma of either writing with the general public in mind or the individual illusionist one is criticizing. The most effective line of reasoning is different in each case, for the public isn’t tied up in the conceptual and definitional knots illusionists create for themselves. Indeed, whereas the public—watching from a more objective, uncommitted vantage point—can easily grasp the blatant circularity and inconsistency of the illusionist argument, the illusionists themselves are too immersed in their own story to fathom any of it. Instead, one must first meet them where they are, otherwise they will choose to believe that their points are merely misunderstood by their critics.

Having always written with the general public in mind, it thus comes as no surprise to me that Frankish should feel certain that I do not grasp what he is saying. At no point does he seem to entertain the possibility that I actually understand perfectly well where he is coming from, why he thinks what he thinks, and yet still consider his story blatantly absurd.

As a matter of fact, in the early years of my career as a computer engineer, I wrestled intensely with the question of how to build computers that would consider themselves conscious even if not programmed to do so; that is, how to construct a machine that would not only perform calculations, but also spontaneously claim to experience these calculations, just as you and I experience the goings-on in our brain. This wasn’t armchair philosophizing for me, but a very concrete and practical question. And that’s precisely why I ended up wasting so much time on it: I never stopped to examine the implicit assumptions embedded in the very problem statement that motivated my search.

And so it was that, in the first years of the 21st century, Pentti Haikonen, a researcher at Nokia, came up with a computer architecture that would not only consider itself conscious, but—Haikonen thought—also in fact be conscious. Haikonen’s deeply insightful realization was two-fold: first, the original semantic anchoring of the input signals fed into the computer should be preserved—as opposed to being encoded into arbitrary binary symbols—if the computer is to consider itself conscious; second, feedback loops should be inserted in the architecture at strategic points, so as to allow the computer to introspect by re-representing its own computational activity.

Haikonen’s approach, which I recognized as brilliant and hold in very high esteem to this day, can be regarded as effectively elaborating—much more specifically and persuasively than Frankish himself—on Frankish’s claim that introspective (mis)representation is what leads to the belief that we are conscious. As such, and implausible as it may sound to him, I believe I actually understand why Frankish considers illusionism so compelling. I am very familiar with the thinking and motivations behind it, in a fairly high level of (engineering) detail.

Indeed, Haikonen creatively tackled many of the difficulties I had identified for building a machine that could spontaneously claim to be conscious. Alas, we would be unable to verify such claim, for the only way to know would be to be the machine. Yet, the claim alone would already be a remarkable engineering achievement, one I was very interested in contributing to.

When it comes to us, however, it’s not just a matter of making spontaneous claims: we actually know that we are conscious, for we are ourselves. In our case, therefore, we must address the hard problem of consciousness, which Haikonen’s architecture—despite his philosophically naive claims to the contrary—completely fails to do: instead of creating consciousness in the phenomenal sense, his approach merely presupposes it. And so does Frankish’s.

No amount of structure, complexity, feedback, recursion, re-representation, etc., can make a substrate presumed to be fundamentally unconscious produce experience, in the same way that no amount of added speakers can turn a stereo into a television, and that no amount of extra legs can make a centipede fly. Recursive re-representations can only complexify pre-existing experiential states, not create them from something fundamentally non-experiential. More specifically, what recursive re-representations can do is to make pre-existing phenomenality accessible to metacognitive introspection, not create it.

Conflating consciousness with metacognitive awareness

For Frankish, it is our ability to introspect by metacognitively re-representing our neural processes that characterizes what we call consciousness. He writes:
It is a mark of conscious experience that we are, or can easily become, aware of having it. We can direct our attention inward (‘introspect’) and think about the experiences we are having.
It is this introspection that, according to Frankish, creates the illusion of qualitative experience: “Our introspective systems monitor these [neural] processes but misrepresent them as a simple quality,” he says. “The illusion concerns the nature of these processes—the belief that they are simple qualia.” Later he continues: “It is this emphasis on the effects of introspection that makes the notion of illusion so appropriate here.”

The problem is that Frankish conflates phenomenal consciousness—that is, raw experience, ‘what-it-is-likeness’—with meta-consciousness. As Jonathan Schooler explained in his 2002 paper, Re-representing consciousness: dissociations between experience and meta-consciousness,
Periodically attention is directed towards explicitly assessing the contents of experience. The resulting meta-consciousness involves an explicit re-representation of consciousness in which one interprets, describes, or otherwise characterizes the state of one’s mind.
But phenomenal consciousness does not require meta-consciousness: if an experience falls outside the field of our attention, we have the experience without being aware that we are having it. For instance, we regularly experience our breathing without metacognitive representation. Moreover, as discussed by Jennifer Windt and Thomas Metzinger in their 2007 paper, The philosophy of dreaming and self-consciousness: What happens to the experiential subject during the dream state, dreams largely lack introspective re-representation, despite their undeniably experiential nature. Even the emerging ‘no-report paradigm’ in neuroscience rests on the understanding that experience can—and frequently does—occur without explicit introspective awareness, such as in the cases of blindsight that Frankish likes to cite.

In conflating consciousness with meta-consciousness, Frankish is failing to heed a key conceptual distinction already discussed by philosopher Ned Block in his important 1995 paper, On a confusion about a function of consciousness: whereas introspection requires metacognitive access, it doesn’t need to be phenomenal. Phenomenal consciousness, in turn, doesn’t need to be introspectively accessible in order to exist. These are two different things.

Therefore, Frankish’s appeal to introspective (mis)representation to explain experience away is based—as I originally claimed—on conceptual confusion: if experience isn’t there to begin with, we have no reason whatsoever to believe that introspective re-representations would be, or even seem to be, experiential either. Instead, everything would happen ‘in the dark,’ without the light of awareness.

Eating the cake and having it too

For Frankish’s position to have any relevance in helping tackle or circumvent the hard problem of consciousness, what he must deny is phenomenality, felt experience, qualia, ‘what-it-is-likeness.’ Anything else, despite potentially having some other philosophical application, would be irrelevant as far as the hard problem is concerned.

Unsurprisingly, thus, Frankish often emphasizes that what he denies is precisely phenomenality, qualia, experience. For instance, already in the subtitle of a recent essay, he wrote that “Phenomenal consciousness is a fiction written by our brains” (emphasis added). This doesn’t seem to leave much room for ambiguity, as philosophers use the qualifier ‘phenomenal’ precisely to specify, unambiguously, that what is meant by the word ‘consciousness’ is qualities, felt experiences, ‘what-it-is-likeness.’

But to deny the qualities of experience is to deny, for instance, that we feel pain; is to say that our agonizing screams under torture—as well as the accompanying physiological processes—are merely functional, useful for getting help; but that, from the inside, none of the dreadful qualities we associate with pain are actually felt. If Frankish denies the qualities of experience, presumably he wouldn’t mind undergoing torture, which I very much doubt to be the case.

And so, in his reply to me, Frankish already starts out by acknowledging that it is “utterly ridiculous” to claim that “people are not conscious, don’t have experiences.” He goes on to say that “illusionists don’t deny that we are conscious,” that there is a “sense in which we undoubtedly are conscious,” that “our lives are filled with conscious experiences.” Really? What is it, then, that illusionists do deny?

“What illusionists reject is a certain conception of what consciousness is,” Frankish claims. But then again, if illusionism is to have any relevance as far as the hard problem is concerned, the “conception of consciousness” that must be denied is precisely that entailing pain and emotion, felt experiences, which Frankish has just acknowledged to exist! Any other conception of consciousness—such as Block’s ‘access consciousness’ or Schooler’s ‘meta-consciousness’—is irrelevant for the hard problem: it still leaves us with having to explain how raw experience, whether metacognitively represented or not, arises from an allegedly non-experiential substrate.

Frankish thus faces an impossible dilemma, which he can only tackle by systematically contradicting himself. He deserves our sympathy, for the job of manufacturing even a smidgen of plausibility for what is the most incongruous maneuver conceivable to the human mind—that of denying itself—is not exactly easy. On the one hand, he must acknowledge that “illusionists don’t deny that we are conscious,” otherwise they would just be crazy. On the other hand, he also has to claim that
Illusionists reject the qualitative conception of consciousness. They hold that qualia, and the private show they constitute, are illusory; they seem to exist but don’t really. This is the core claim.
How are we to square this circle? Frankish seems to be making a distinction—which he conspicuously doesn’t elaborate upon—between experience or phenomenality on the one hand, and felt qualities on the other. He acknowledges the former while, bizarrely, denying the latter. Yet, to reject the “qualitative conception of consciousness” is to deny experience, phenomenality, phenomenal consciousness itself; after all, the latter is defined as entailing the felt qualities of experience.

Is Frankish playing some silly game of words? In what sense is he acknowledging that we have pain and emotion if he is denying the qualities that pain and emotion are? Granted, pain and emotion are associated with certain functions and behaviors, but this has nothing to do with consciousness. By focusing on function and behavior to the exclusion of qualia, Frankish is merely ignoring the hard problem, closing his eyes to it, not tackling or circumventing it in any meaningful sense.

When he reassures us that “illusionists don’t deny that we are conscious” and thus aren’t outright crazy, Frankish is appealing to our intuitive understanding of conscious states as felt qualities. But then, having accomplished that, he immediately turns around and rejects the “qualitative conception of consciousness” so as to portray his approach as relevant to addressing the hard problem, instead of something utterly trivial. Which one is it? He can’t have it both ways. Either he is sane, or his work is relevant when it comes to the hard problem.

Explanation by redefinition of terms

Contrary to what Frankish suggests, the qualitative dimension of experience isn’t a merely conceptual reality, but a felt and immediate one. It is very important that we keep this in mind.

You see, there are many entities in science whose only accessible reality is conceptual: think of imaginary numbers in mathematics or quantum fields in physics, for instance. The world behaves as though these conceptual entities existed and, as such, it is very useful to imagine that they do. But we have no immediate, felt access to them; all we know about them is our conception of them.

Therefore, these conceptual entities are perfectly amenable to being redefined, if doing so helps to make sense of things. For instance, it has been useful to redefine gravity as a curvature of spacetime, instead of an invisible force acting between two bodies from a distance. We have no direct acquaintance either with the curvature of spacetime or the invisible force, so we might as well feel free to redefine gravity based on theoretical convenience.

However, an analogous rationale does not apply to phenomenal consciousness, for the qualities of experience aren’t merely conceptual; they are immediately felt. By rejecting “a certain conception of what consciousness is” illusionists aren’t making these felt qualities disappear; they are merely ignoring them, pretending that they don’t exist.

Indeed, whatever definition of consciousness we choose to use in our conceptual games, there remains this thing—this undeniable thing immediately accessible to us prior to all conceptual reasoning—that will continue to exist whatever we call it. The hard problem of consciousness is essentially about this thing, not the word ‘consciousness.’ If you think the label ‘consciousness’ shouldn’t be applied to it, fine, I don’t care, call it something else; call it… well, the ‘thing.’ But the thing won’t cease to exist just because you renamed it. Even if we can’t appropriately define it in words, it won’t be affected; it will remain what it is and has always been. Terminology games don’t change reality, no matter how hard we wish they did.

Frankish, however, seems to think that he can make the felt qualities of experience—the thing—disappear simply by redefining terms. Consider the following passages from his reply:

“experiences are physical states of the brain”

“consciousness consists, not in awareness of private mental qualities, but in a certain relation to the public world”

“It is this global broadcasting and its effects that constitute consciousness”

“I am proposing that consciousness is this complex of informational and reactive processes”

Hey, I can play this game too. How about ‘consciousness is the involuntary microscopic twitching of my left big toe’? Or—just a little more seriously—‘consciousness is the collapse of the quantum wave function in the synaptic clefts of my prefrontal cortex’? In terms of explanatory power, are these statements really so different from “consciousness is a complex of informational and reactive processes”? Are they any less arbitrary? Do definitional statements have any explanatory power at all? Do they solve any problem?

The bottom-line is this: We know first-hand what consciousness is, regardless of how the word is defined. It doesn’t matter how often and how passionately Frankish repeats his statements of faith, it is this thing we know that matters; it won’t disappear because of semantic games. Substituting redefinitions of terms for actual argument just won’t do. Otherwise, I would have won the Fields Medal long ago by merely redefining yet-unsolved problems in such a way that the solution would be trivial.

Failure to grasp the criticism

Frankish’s central point is that our introspective re-representations of our own physical brain states are illusory in the sense that they don’t accurately portray said brain states. That’s why—in his view—we mistakenly think we have qualia, instead of just physical brain states: the latter are metacognitively misrepresented as seeming qualia, which is the illusion in question.

My original refutation of this argument was as simple as it was generic: if the misrepresentations seem qualitative, then the very seeming is already a quality, regardless of what the misrepresentations seem like. After all, an illusion is already a felt experience in and of itself, regardless of its lack of representational accuracy. The implication is that we do have qualia, not despite our re-representations being inaccurate in the way Frankish claims them to be, but precisely because of it.

Yet, Frankish failed to understand this simple point. He misconstrues and misportrays it as something unnecessarily more restrictive, which can be seen in the following passage (if you find it too difficult to follow his reasoning, no worries, I summarize it in simpler words below):
Could we seem to have qualia without really having them? Kastrup thinks not. ‘Good Lord,’ he exclaims, ‘the ‘seeming’ is already an experience in and of itself.’ Does this simple point blow illusionism out of the water, as Kastrup supposes? There’s one way it might. Suppose that … seeming to perceive a thing involves being aware of the mental qualities one would have been aware of if one were really perceiving it. Then, by analogy, seeming to introspect a mental quality would involve being aware of the mental quality one would have been aware of if one were really introspecting it. And that, presumably, is the very same mental quality. The illusion would involve a real instance of the thing that was supposed to be illusory! … The flaw in this objection is obvious: it assumes that experience involves awareness of mental qualities.
What Frankish is saying here is that my criticism holds if, but only if, our alleged misrepresentations of perceptual brain states correspond to “the mental qualities one would have been aware of if one were really [consciously] perceiving.” But such constraint is not at all necessary for my criticism to hold: whether the alleged misrepresentations match what would have been the actual qualia of perception or not is irrelevant, as long as the misrepresentations seem like something; anything; it doesn’t matter what. The seeming alone already entails felt qualities—whatever they may be—and, therefore, felt qualities must exist.

Even if what is misrepresented are physical brain states—as opposed to experiential qualities—the corresponding seeming, in and of itself, is already an experience entailing its own (illusory) felt qualities. Therefore, contrary to what Frankish claims, the only assumption my criticism makes is that there is seeming, which is precisely what illusionism requires (otherwise one cannot speak of illusions to begin with).

Final reflections

I earn my living doing corporate strategy in the high-tech industry, perhaps the most rewarding but also most unforgiving environment for analytic thinking. In that world—my world—even subtle and understandable failures of reasoning are very quickly—and often disproportionately—punished, either by management or by the market. Reality can always be counted upon to settle all questions in a rather brutal but objective manner; something I have grown to appreciate over the years, for it forces me to be constantly critical of my own narratives.

It strikes me, though, that in philosophy one seems to be able to get away with incoherent thinking indefinitely. If one cannot clearly and substantively argue for one’s own position, verbose misdirection, ambiguity and handwaving often sustain just enough doubt about whether one is actually wrong. And so, nonsense can survive ad infinitum. There is always the lingering doubt that, hidden behind impenetrably obscure language constructs and indecipherable conceptual acrobatics, there might just be some deep, non-obvious philosophical insight. Yet, often there is none; often things are precisely what they seem to be: very confused and self-contradictory thinking. Perhaps this is the reason why philosophy doesn’t seem to make progress.

Although I have made a deliberate effort in this essay to patiently meet the illusionists where they are—so as to do something different than just repeating my original criticisms, most of which Frankish didn’t even address, such as my claim that he falls for the fallacy of infinite regress—it remains my position that illusionism is the most ludicrous and self-defeating view conceivable. Nothing in the history of human thought is, or can be, more preposterous than it. That some otherwise intelligent people espouse it is, in my view, merely a psychological artifact—a desperate attempt to salvage an untenable metaphysics many have associated their very identity with—not the outcome of clear, rational thought.

My willingness to engage in an extensive, detailed and protracted debate about illusionism should, therefore, not be construed as a sign of respect for it; I have precisely none. In fact, I find it embarrassing to be in a position of having to argue against it. My doing so reflects merely a begrudging acknowledgment that our philosophy is in a lamentable state and that, if anything is to be done about it, it must be done from within our present circumstances.

In a less confused world, illusionism wouldn’t even be a joke. Perhaps we will get there one day. In the meantime, however, brutally honest, even scathing public criticism may be the only system of checks-and-balances available to preserve the sanity of philosophy. The present essay has been written in this ultimately well-meaning spirit.
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The new corona virus: Opportunity in catastrophe


The news are now dominated by the new corona virus pandemic. And for good reason, for the pandemic touches almost every aspect of our lives: our jobs, our social interactions, our schools and even our ability to stay in touch with family. For most professionally active adults in the West, who were born after the last great war and have never lived under armed conflict, what is happening now is the greatest disruption of commercial, social, financial and health care systems they've ever witnessed.

Indeed, our present situation is a very serious one. Should the pandemic be allowed to spread in an uncontrolled fashion, most of the work force could fall ill concurrently, compromising our most essential systems. Who would be there to deliver our food, maintain our basic utilities—water, gas, electricity—in working order, or even take care of us in case we fell ill ourselves? However limited the mortality rate of COVID-19 may be, if the disease makes a large percentage of the population ill at the same time, dramatic social break down could follow.

Yet, despite the seriousness of our situation, there are good reasons to think that not only did we get lucky, but an opportunity has forced itself upon us that may be of enormous value in the future. As Bill Gates and many others had been warning us—see video insert below—a global viral pandemic was an inevitability. Things like this are bound to happen in an interconnected, globalized economy in which people travel around the world regularly for both work and leisure; where basic supply chains span the globe. So the basic question has never been 'if,' but 'how bad' it was going to be.




Indeed, the last major viral pandemic, in 1918, was also propelled by the massive movement of people—armies—around the world for the purpose of waging war. Today, the movement of people and goods is vastly larger and farther-reaching. So only naive wishful thinking and an ostrich attitude—that of burying one's head in the sand to avoid seeing the obvious—prevented us from acknowledging that what is happening now was inevitable.

Given this context, we have been tremendously lucky: the new corona virus has a relatively low mortality rate, compared to the likes of ebola or the 1918 "Spanish flu" virus (which, by the way, didn't come from Spain, but likely from the USA, France or China). Moreover, unlike the "Spanish flu"—which affected young, professionally active adults most severely—the new corona virus affects mostly the elderly, retired part of the population.

I am not saying that the lives of older people are any less valuable than those of younger ones. In fact, a case could be made that, if anything, the reverse statement might hit closer to the mark. However, the social disruption of incapacitating professionally active people—who deliver our food, ensure our utilities keep on working, and take care of us in case we fall ill—is certainly higher than incapacitating retirees. This is merely an objective observation, not a value judgment.

I am also not trying to minimize the drama and loss caused by the new corona virus. For those who perished from it, as well as their families, the current pandemic is as bad as any pandemic could possibly be. For them it is—for very legitimate reasons—offensive to minimize its impact, for they've already lost what was dearest to them.

But it could have been a lot worse. The present pandemic is serious enough to force us to prepare ourselves better for the next, potentially much more destructive one. Yet, it is not a force that can decimate our civilization. As such, it serves as a kind of wake up call, a painful warning that should force us to get our act together. Without it, the next time round our civilization could collapse.

There is another potentially positive side to the drama we are undergoing: the present pandemic offers us an opportunity to revise our unsustainable way of life and experiment with alternatives. In fact, it forces us to try the alternatives, which we would probably have never done otherwise. For instance, we are now forced to dramatically reduce the out-of-control travel binge we have been indulging in for decades. In an era of highly effective and ubiquitous telepresence technology and video conferencing, hundreds of thousands of corporate managers have nonetheless been traveling half way around the globe—multiple times a year—for business meetings. Airplane tickets have become so ridiculously cheap—far cheaper than the actual cost of flying, if we take sustainability and carbon footprint into account—that, every year, multiple and massive human migrations take place: we call them 'holidays.'

Now, the new corona virus is forcing us to think and act more locally; to work more from home as opposed to clogging highways, practically eliminating traffic jams. This sudden change is dramatically reducing pollution and perhaps even forcing us to connect more with our homes, families and immediate environment. It is forcing us to rediscover the richness of what is immediately around us, as opposed to exotic, far distant lands. These aren't bad things. Hopefully, we will have the wisdom to keep some of it after we come out of this painful exercise, as opposed to going back to our crazy old ways. We can turn our present misery into something of tremendous long-term value, on which the sanity and lives of future generations may very well depend.

At an economic level, the devastating effect of the present pandemic is plain to see. Businesses are struggling to keep going. On a more personal note, my pension fund has shrunk to levels comparable to those of several years ago, which certainly isn't fun. However, even here there is an opportunity, if we only pay attention: for decades we have—insanely—linked economic health with growth. The reigning corporate wisdom has been that a business that doesn't grow is a dead business. Yet, our planet isn't growing; it has the same basic resources today that it had millions of years ago. And it also has the same capacity for absorbing pollution without unpleasant consequences. So growth just can't go on forever.

Eventually, we will have to find a way to break our economic dependence on growth. This conclusion is as obvious as it is inescapable. The problem is that we live under a system that stimulates irresponsible pillaging until the eleventh hour: we know we will have to stop doing it at some point but, until then, we will rush even more and try to pillage more than the next guy; just like the race driver who tries to brake at the very last moment before the curve, risking life and limb in the process. This is the reigning psychology of Western capitalism, a psychology of collective suicide. Perhaps the present pandemic will force us to break away from it, to look into the possibility of separating economic health from growth. If it does, then this, too, is a good thing.

For now, our focus must be on surviving the outbreak with the minimum possible level of loss and suffering. But as we do so, it doesn't hurt to pay attention to the changes being forced upon us, and think about whether these changes are worth keeping for the long run, even after the pandemic subsides. For instance, we have the technology to continue to embrace remote work and video conferencing, which we haven't done more broadly thus far merely because of prejudice and force of habit. But now that we are being forced to make this option work, we can learn a thing or two. A lot of good can come out of an otherwise very difficult and painful situation, if only we pay attention.
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PBS's Spacetime: The role of consciousness in quantum physics


It is no secret that one of my favorite shows online is PBS's Spacetime. They found a unique combination of rigor and accessibility, spicing the whole thing up with a certain 'coolness' factor that makes the show very enjoyable to watch. Only very rarely do they seem to make mistakes—a surprising achievement given the complexity of the subjects explored.

In this context, many of you brought to my attention a very recent episode of Spacetime—see video insert below—in which they discuss the role of consciousness in quantum physics. This is a topic very close to my heart, about which I have written extensively (for instance, on Scientific American). But some of you were quite critical, thinking that Spacetime weren't fair in their portrayal of the relationship between consciousness and quantum mechanics.


I did watch the episode in question only a couple of hours after it was released, so by the time your comments began streaming in, I already had an opinion. And, perhaps surprisingly to some of you, my opinion is... well, quite positive.

Granted, Spacetime were critical of the idea that quantum mechanics—through the notion that consciousness causes wave function collapse—somehow permits us to "manifest" our preferred reality by thinking it into existence. But insofar as the consciousness in question is understood to be our personal, egoic, introspectively accessible consciousness, neither do I think this is the case. Perhaps our subliminal mental attitudes—at a deeper, even transpersonal level, below the threshold of metacognitive introspection—do influence things in some yet-unsuspected way, but that doesn't entail or imply that we can personally and deliberately choose, "manifest" or "attract" things; otherwise there would be no consensus about our inhabiting the same world. Therefore, I don't think the skepticism shown by the Spacetime crew is unjustified or inappropriate.

Neither do I naively think that quantum mechanics hasn't been the target of abuse by non-physicists. Although I defend—in an upcoming paper in the Journal of Near-Death Studies—some statements about quantum mechanics made by non-experts in the fields of parapsychology and integrative medicine, I do acknowledge that extensive abuse has happened; also in those fields. For instance, not long ago, in my role as consulting publisher at Iff Books, I've had to review a manuscript that not only betrayed extraordinary ignorance of what quantum mechanics is or says, but also displayed an atrociously confident tone suggesting the contrary. It literally made me feel sick in my stomach. So abuse does happen and must be countered. That Spacetime decided to do this is, in principle, perfectly okay with me; even though I reserve judgment about some of the specific books they chose to name explicitly as instances of abuse.

As a matter of fact, I was very positively surprised by a number of statements made in the episode that not only admitted to a possible link between quantum physics and consciousness (the latter meant here in a transpersonal, naturalistic sense), but also persuasively explained the basic rationale for postulating such a link in the first place.

Indeed, Spacetime were clear (at just after the 12-minute mark) that their criticisms don't apply to what they called a "global consciousness." Significantly, they've also spent most of the episode thoroughly explaining 'von Neumann chains' and the 'Wigner's friend' thought experiment: two of the reasons to suspect a link between consciousness and quantum mechanics. Even more importantly, they did not attempt to refute the rationale behind either notion. In a strong sense, thus, they've actually made a persuasive case for the role of consciousness. At the 12:24-minute mark, they've even explicitly stated that "conscious observation may play a role" in the transition from quantum states to classical reality, although that role isn't compatible with the notion that we can personally and deliberately choose our own reality.

The only point about which I am mildly critical of the episode is this: Spacetime came through too strongly in favor of a completely objective external reality. Recent evidence shows that, at some level, this isn't true. That said, and as Spacetime illustrates with their modified version of the 'Wigner's friend' thought experiment at the 11:05-minute mark, we clearly seem to inhabit the same world, consistently experienced by each of us. So it cannot be the case that we are each creating our own reality independently of everybody else; at least not at all levels.

I also regret a bit that they too strongly associate the link between consciousness and quantum physics with mysticism, as opposed to a natural process. Consciousness, after all, is natural; it's an undeniable aspect of nature, the prime datum of existence. Having said that, insofar as what they mean by 'mysticism' is related to the notion that the executive ego can wish a preferred reality into existence, I am okay even with that.

What we have to guard against is the tempting but almost certainly false notion that, by granting a fundamental role to consciousness in the fabric of reality, we are granting our personal, individual, introspectively accessible consciousness magical powers. This is not, for instance, what analytic idealism entails or implies. When Wigner's characterized the role of consciousness in physics as a "solipsistic view," he was denying precisely this, not the hypothesis of a universal consciousness underlying physics.

All things considered, I salute Spacetime on another beautiful and fairly well balanced episode. May they keep on coming!
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Echoes and reflections


Echoes and reflections

The inscrutable mysteries we seek to understand,
are but the outer appearance of our effort to understand.
The baffling complexities we inquire into,
are but the inner structure of our inquiring.
Thus those who inquire simply,
suspect simple answers.
But those who inquire deeply,
may become lost in the labyrinth of their inquiry.

All mysteries are returning echoes of ourselves:
should we stop the effort to fathom,
nothing would be left to be fathomed.
For the universe is a mirror.
That which is familiar in awareness,
is close by in space.
But that which is alienated in awareness,
is far away.

Blackholes, quasars and supernovae at the edge of space:
returning echoes
of the impersonal within us;
reflected images
of the bizarre foundations of our true being;
remote whispers
from the most alienated parts of ourselves.

As our instruments of inquiry improve,
so the mystery recedes beyond the event horizon.
For there is but one thing to be grasped:
that which is trying to grasp.
If the mystery were solved,
existence would cease.
And thus, as Gödel hinted, there shall always be a mystery;
one mystery.

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Dim-witted biologist: consciousness is accidental

Daphnia (crustacean water flea).
It's finally Friday evening and my week's work is done. The past few days have been very productive at all levels, both in my day job in corporate strategy and my evening pursuits in philosophy and science. And so I feel entitled to indulge a bit in something utterly unnecessary but nonetheless fun: to comment on Jerry 'Berry' Coyne's latest attempt to criticize my work.

Indeed, Jerry Berry has found time to post about me not once, but twice in only a few days, in between his demanding, prolific and essential work commenting on the "best and worse Oscar dresses," "six pounds of steak in 13 minutes (not to mention salad, fries, and onion rings)," and the "words and phrases [he] hates." I feel honored to deserve so much attention from such a distinguished polymath, versed in so many distinct fields of scholarship.

The target of Jerry Berry's latest rant and rage has been an essay I wrote claiming that, under the premises of mainstream physicalism, phenomenal consciousness—that is, subjective, qualitative experience—cannot have been the result of Darwinian evolution. The gist of my argument is that, according to physicalism, only quantitative parameters such as mass, charge, momentum, etc., figure in our models of the world—think of the mathematical equations underlying all physics—which, in turn, are putatively causally-closed. Therefore, the qualities of experience cannot perform any function whatsoever. And properties that perform no function cannot have been favored by natural selection.


Jerry Coyne implicitly but unambiguously acknowledges my point that consciousness, under physicalism, doesn't perform any function.


Jerry Berry offers a number of alleged refutations of my claims. He starts by arguing that the qualitative, subjective experiences that accompany the cognitive data processing taking place in our brain may have been merely "byproducts ('spandrels') of other traits that were selected," or "they could have been 'neutral' traits that came to predominate by random genetic drift."

Let us take stock of what he is saying here. To begin with, he is implicitly but unambiguously acknowledging my point that consciousness, under physicalism, doesn't perform any function; it's useless (thank you for admitting to this, Jerry Berry, as this is the critical point). Then, he argues that consciousness could have evolved as a byproduct ("spandrel") of the complexity of the brain or even be a merely accidental feature.
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