Is Consciousness an Illusion?


Many now hold that consciousness is a trick, wrought upon an illusory “us” by physics, and you may therefore wish to contemplate whether you exist at all.

You have only to start reading articles on the philosophy of mind to witness the derision heaped upon those who hold any other view in this brave new world.

The impact is profound. If you believe the materialists, as they are called, you will cease to have free will and your life will become entirely meaningless.

Some can live with this and make with themselves a modern form of Pascal’s Wager. Psychologist Susan Blackmore is a good example: she believes in pure physicalism but recommends living life as though such beliefs were not true.

As in every other area of human life, the academic field of consciousness is home to extreme arrogance and intolerance. And this naturally spills over to the amateurs who air their views over the internet. Amateurs and “professionals” alike will have their immutable and trammeled views, founded upon inconclusive evidence, and will strike out at those who hold otherwise.

Anyone who profess anything other than a purely reductive and materialistic view of consciousness is now likely to be labelled as an ignorant fool, who has either not read the evidence or who refuses to believe an obvious truth which such evidence apparently reveals.

The more subtle truth is that there is no evidence.

It is undoubtedly true that there is now a long history of experiments which would suggest (conclusively I suspect) that consciousness can not be evidenced or experienced without a physical brain. But even then, who knows?

The very briefest example will suffice. The lobotomy for instance, that drastic surgical invasion so dear to neurosurgeons in the early 20th Century, altered consciousness  in a brutal and inhuman manner. Where then was the eternal soul so beloved of religious devotees and followers of Rene Descartes?  It seems that the surgeon’s knife can do away with it at the flick of the wrist.

And so on through endless less harmful experiments, it has been shown that medical intervention can alter or snuff out what we might otherwise believe to be the self.

And what of qualia? The hard problem of consciousness puzzled over by Chalmers and innumerable others? What is it like to be a bat? How can we account for the subjective experience of pain and pleasure arising from mere physical atoms? Our delight in music or a beautiful sunset? The subjective experience of mysticism?

Does the mind have any control over the body? Do we choose to take a physical action which our body then acts out accordingly?

Well it depends who you listen to and anybody with the temerity to claim that such questions have been settled by experiments and thus empirical evidence is simply misleading himself.

Some suspect that qualia are nothing more than what happens when information is processed by the brain. Many suspect that what we believe to be a self is no more than a misleading feeling brought about by memory. That there is no series of events which has happened to “us”, that there is no “us”.

If you feel you need to enter into the fray, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy will give you a good starting point but do not expect to emerge with any answers.

If you do emerge with answers, the likelihood is that eventually, over the course of many centuries or even millennia, you will be proven wrong.

I am not proposing any belief. I am not proposing any answers. I do not have the arrogance to say that one view is categorically right or wrong.

What I do say is that the universe is still to a large extent mysterious. And that “physical” is a slippery concept. As most of us are now well aware, the concept of the material is strange indeed. That chair you are sitting on is not solid as it happens: atoms are largely empty and even atoms may not be “material” but “mere” energy.

So the universe appears to be more some kind of force field than anything we would think of as material in any common sense way. Some claim that it is a hologram, a mere projection in three dimensions from two. Some claim that the basic building block may be a one dimensional string of vibrating energy.

In view of such extraordinary claims, it would be strange indeed to write off the possibility that “we” exist.  That our phenomenal experiences are mere phantoms felt by a ghost.

At the bottom, at the very base of physics it seems that nothing is conventionally real in the sense we humans normally think of as reality.

Perhaps then it is only “mind” which is primary. Perhaps then mind is information and it is information which constitutes the multiverse.

Perhaps far from mind not existing, mind is all that does exist.








  1. The materialist view has always seemed to me to be unsupportable in view of my own subjective experience of my personal existence, but even if the world we observe and participate in appears to be composed of solid objects and dynamic physical forces which can be easily accounted for by our sciences, none of it eliminates the possibility that ineffable and immaterial forces exist at the heart of it all.

    It’s unfortunate that our modern philosophers are so constrained in what they can propose as reasonable explanations for what we all seem to know intuitively and subjectively. Philosophers through the ages have not been so constrained and have proposed a wide range of fascinating ideas to account for the experience of sentience and the wonder we all feel as living creatures.

    Once we eliminate the possibility of marveling at the wonderous experience of life and begin dismissing the miraculous aspects of being alive, by reducing it all to the mechanisms of the brain, we lose the thread that leads us out of the labyrinth…

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  2. For my own such position I like to begin with my favorite immaterialist, or the great Rene Descartes. Though I can’t be certain that anything which I perceive exists, I can be perfectly certain that I exist given that I clearly do perceive.

    It’s from this perfectly certain position (which I can’t prove to others, but is proven to me) that I move on to metaphysics. Here I observe that it’s only possible for me to figure anything out (beyond that I exist), if reality functions by means of causal dynamics. So I’m not a materialist because it’s true, but rather because it’s a convenient position for someone who’d like to figure things out. I believe that it would be helpful for the institution of science to found itself upon this premise, and thus all non-deterministic theory (such as ontological interpretations of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) would need to be explored elsewhere.

    Then with my existence and metaphysics sorted out, my epistemology is next. My first such principle concerns definition. None can be true or false, I think, but rather only more and less useful in a given context. I consider language to restrict science severely today, and believe that this principle would help.

    Then my second principle of epistemology states the scientific method itself. I consider there to be one unique process by which anything conscious, consciously figures anything out. It takes what it thinks it knows (or “evidence”), and uses this to assess what it’s not so sure about (or “a model”). As a given model seems to remain consistent with evidence, it tends to become progressively more believed. In practice scientists sometimes forgo evidence when it becomes difficult to come by. This principle denotes the cost.

    Then finally given my presumption that I’m but a cog in a vast and perfectly determined universe, does this mean that my existence is “purposeless”? Well not according to my single principle of axiology. From this perspective it’s possible for a machine which is not conscious (like my brain), to produce a punishment/ reward dynamic from which to drive the function of a machine that is conscious (like me). Thus I believe that my purpose is to feel as good as I can, for as long as I can.

    I understand the persecution that immaterialists must feel today, though I do think that I offer respect by acknowledging that my perspective may indeed be wrong, and their’s right. But if I have a happy life (and I do), then it’s rational for me to want to continue on with it regardless of what’s in control. If existence were horrible for me, as well as hopeless, then it would be rational for me to end my existence. (We see this by the nobility as their kingdom falls on the Netflix series called “The Witcher”.)

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    1. I think you make the point well Eric: in our current state of knowledge (or rather lack thereof) any of our perspectives may be wrong. Or indeed right. I hope that I do exist despite dear old Suze Blackmore and Dismal Dennett but of course if I don’t exist I shall never be able to tell the difference.

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  3. I’ve been playing around with the idea of writing a short story for this competition –

    The kicker is that it’s got to be a riff on some aspect of quantum physics. It’s a very cool competition. They offer a lot of resources to get you thinking. The problem is, while I’m fascinated by physics, I don’t understand it very well, and like the majority of humanity I can’t hold a small part of it for long before it spirals out and pools like water and evaporates to nothing. I mean, I watched Brian Greene’s thing on string theory twice, and was enthralled both times, but fucked if I know what it is.

    Still, I keep coming back to it. It feels like a shape, somehow, or a pattern, as if the whole of it is the answer greater than the sum of the parts.

    I have this same (romantic?) idea about consciousness. Unlike you I tend to think it *does* exist outside the brain. But I can’t prove why I believe that.

    I guess I think that what we currently think of as energy is the same as matter and so somehow it’s not difficult for it to be outside the bounds of what we perceive of as our physical bodies.

    But who knows.

    And how nice to feel the space to surmise here. That’s where all the answers come from, isn’t it. Out of the blue, come in from Rumi’s field.

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    1. What fun! Sadly I do not have a word of fiction in me, although no doubt some might accuse me of writing nothing else. I have read several of Brian Greene’s books and also Tegmark etc. Also watched many videos by all the science popularisers – Brian Cox etc. I am fascinated in science but like you have difficulties conceptualising 11 dimensions and the holographic universe. Perhaps it is easier if you are a mathematician. But yes, energy/matter…force fields etc…nothing seems outside the bounds of possibility in the weird universe we inhabit. Perhaps the neuroscientist lives too close to his own little subject….

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  4. I’m in the camp normally labeled as “materialist” or “physicalist”, although I find those labels unproductive, because if I ever encounter consistent repeatable or verifiable evidence for non-physical phenomena, I’ll include it in my worldview. I like to think I’ll go wherever the evidence leads, or at least that’s my aspiration.

    I’m also not a fan of the “illusion” label. Just because we have insight into the constituents of something, or how it is formed, doesn’t mean that thing doesn’t exist. It just means we have those insights. As you note, such a view eventually leaves us with just quantum fields and their interactions, and maybe not even that. That’s not reductionism, but eliminative reductionism, which I think is too greedy.

    On arrogance and intolerance, I think there’s plenty of that to go around. Galen Strawson opines that illusionism is the silliest claim ever made. He proceeds to advocate for panpsychism, a view many others find silly beyond words. My view is admittedly closest to illusionism (although it’s really more emergentism (in the weak sense)), but I can see how people arrive at panpyschism or idealism. My view is that anyone who strawmans or reflexively rejects these views without seriously looking at them is guilty of being intolerant.


    1. I’m not sure what fool owns this blog, but since he doesn’t exist anyway it doesn’t really matter. In the forlorn supposition that “I” actually exist, I would like to state my taste for emergentism also as one of the candidates for what consciousness actually is. The sum is more than its parts and all that sort of thing. Something which a nuclear physicist chum of mine finds a derisory and ridiculous idea!

      Anyway its all mostly bollox in the current state of play, and whatever my personal beliefs are, I shall continue to ignore those of others (while taking care not to deride them!) and hope that eventually I manage to sublime to somewhere or something. In any event I’ll keep on trying.

      In the event I succeed, I shall pass your regards on to dear old Iain M Banks.

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  5. QUOTE: “Perhaps then it is only “mind” which is primary. Perhaps then mind is information and it is information which constitutes the multiverse.

    “Perhaps far from mind not existing, mind is all that does exist.”

    Bull’s eye! A Sufi school explained the extinguishment of the body and brain at death but were very mysterious about the fate of the mind, which apparently continued in its own unexplained place. I wanted to ask about this but somehow never did and eventually intuited I knew already. Mind is soul, or consciousness, or whatever human word you struggle to use to identitify its ineffability. Reality thrives through the infinite mind’s observation, experience. Reality, in which mind exists, is all there is and never dies, in my understanding …

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  6. I think we’ve wrongly elevated consciousness to some mystical unknown realm of importance. Consciousness may not be material or tangible in the general sense but neither is emotion, thought, memory, imagination. Everything we know, everything we feel, all our realities come from our brain. Including our mind. So why not the “feelings” of consciousness?

    In knowing (?) that it does come from our brain, seems to me to take the hocus pocus supernatural element out of the equation. Perhaps consciousness is just a result of our working brain as most neurologists first theorized? An evolutionary aid in the survival and progression of our species and nothing more?

    Just because we wish there is more to it. Or can’t comprehend living a life without a grander purpose — doesn’t mean that there has to be more? A going back to the basics and simplified opinion admittedly, but its mine!

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    1. I think it is right to retain an open mind about the whole question. I don’t think anything has been proved yet one way or the other. If consciouness does prove to be an evolutionary by product however there would still be scope to improve an elevate it into something even more extraordinary.

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      1. Agreed, it was only my personal opinion. And I can understand why the feelings of consciousness excite and intrigue us into believing that its something more. All I was saying that perhaps there is nothing more. What you feel is what you get. My opinion of course. Thanks for replying to my comment Anthony.

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  7. You have it right when you say “but there is no evidence”. For the illusion characterization of consciousness is even less than an opinion — it is more properly labelled a preference. It amounts to saying that I, and by the way everybody else, am experiencing an illusion constantly, and that I am experiencing it is also therefore an illusion, because all experience is mere illusion. Somehow or other I have uncovered this reality about all this illusoriness, and yet at the same time, I have done so in such a way that I am certain *this* observation is not itself an illusion. Even though I utilized my illusory consciousness to determine so. So, kindly congratulate me and alter your worldview in deference.

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