The feeling of consciousness is an illusion

Stanislaw Dehaene’s book, Consciousness and the Brain, identifies various kinds of consciousness. It helps to separate the various uses of the words “conscious” and “consciousness”. The kind of consciousness that he has studied and reported in his book has measurable effects. This allows the scientific method to be applied.

After reading Dehaene’s book, I am more convinced that science will eventually fully explain how we hold thoughts in our minds, how we recognize things, form ideas, remember things, process our thoughts, and act on them. To be conscious “of” something – whether it be the presence of a person, a thing, or a fleeting thought – is a form of consciousness that can have a particular signature – physiological markers that demonstrate a telltale change in the brain that coincide with a person reporting on becoming aware of something.

Brain imaging will soon advance to such a degree that we will begin to see signatures of many kinds of thoughts and associate them with outward behaviors and expressions. It it also being used to show that some people who are in a vegetative state are actually aware of what is going on, even if they have no way to express this fact outwardly. So much will be explained. We are at a stage in brain research where consciousness is becoming recognized as a measurable physical phenomenon. It is making its way into the domain of experimental science. Does this mean that consciousness will soon no longer be a subject of philosophy?


There is one kind of consciousness which we may never be able to directly measure. And that is the subjective feeling of being alive, of being “me”, and experiencing a self. It is entirely private. Daniel Dennett suggests that these subjective feelings, which are referred to as “qualia”, are ineffable: they cannot be communicated, or apprehended by any other means than one’s own direct experience.

This would imply that the deepest and most personal form of consciousness is something that we will never be able to fully understand; it is forever inaccessible to objective observation.

On the other hand, the fact that I can write these words and that you can (hopefully) understand them means that we probably have similar sensations in terms of private consciousness. The vast literature on personal consciousness experience implies a shared experience. But of course it is shared: human brains are very similar to each other (my brain is more similar to your brain than it is to a galaxy, or a tree, or the brain of a chicken or the brain of a chimp). The aggregate of all reports of this inaccessible subjective state constitutes a kind of objective truth – indirect and fuzzy, sure – but nonetheless a source for scientific study.

So I’d like to offer a possible scenario that could unfold over the next several decades. What if brain scientists continue to map out more and more states of mind, gathering more accurate and precise signatures of conscious thoughts. As more scientific data and theories accumulate to explain the measurable effects of consciousness in the brain, we may begin to relegate the most private inexpressible aspects of qualia to an increasingly-smaller status. Neuroscience will enable more precise language to describe subtle private experiences that we have all experienced but may not have had a clear way to express. Science will nibble away at the edges.

An evolved illusion

And here’s an idea that I find hard to internalize, but am beginning to believe:

It’s all an illusion.

…because self is an illusion; a theatre concocted by the evolving brain to help animals become more effective at surviving in the world; to improve their ability to participate in biosemiosis. Throughout evolution, the boundary between an organism’s body and the rest of the world has complexified out of necessity as other organisms complexify themselves – this includes social structures and extended phenotypes. Also, the more autonomous the organisms of an evolving species become, the more self is needed to drive that autonomy.

The idea that we are living in an illusion is gaining ground, as explored in an article called: “The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality“.

Feelings are created by the body/brain as it interacts with the world, with thoughts generated in the brain, and with chemicals that ebb and flow in our bodies. The feeling of consciousness might be just that: a feeling – a sensation – like so many other sensations. Perhaps it was invented by the evolving brain to make it more of a personal matter. The problem is: being so personal is what makes it so difficult to relegate to the status of mere illusion.

5 thoughts on “The feeling of consciousness is an illusion

  1. We do not exist in an illusion. We live in a pragmatically defined and concrete environment of nature, time, physics and perception. Our mental capabilities bring us the concept of opposite; the “is” or “not is” which provides the base of this argument. As we perceive reality we can also conceptualize its opposite: “not is.” That state is infinite, unprovable and indiscernible.

  2. Hi benerdconencted… I’m not sure if your points about “not” or “not is” are related to this exploration. Everything I’m talking about here exists – if not as fact then at least as experience – no opposites here. The problem is how to tease out fact vs. experience.

    Since we can’t know of something without experiencing it, we have to include experience as a necessary component of all knowledge. The way we experience the world and build a picture of reality is through a messy, chaotic apparatus made of meat and bones and neurons that evolved over billions of years through uncountable arbitrary influences. If evolution had gone a different way, I have no doubt that what we understand as reality would be very different – because our brains would be different.

    Now, if you believe that a God designed our brains to be able to know His version of reality, then this discussion becomes moot – as science can no longer apply.

    These ideas, which have been gaining currency, are being generated at the boundary between science and philosophy. And science is progressively taking up the slack – that has always been the case. It’s what science does – that’s its job.

  3. Hi Jeffrey, another great post. I think you have a better handle on things, actually, than Donald Hoffman. He begins with a good point, that selective pressure may not always reveal reality, and will hide aspects of it, but he makes a couple of errors. One is that selective pressure can also act towards developing better models of reality, and it is trivial in the extreme to find examples. Another is that somehow humans developed the scientific method (and earlier rough prototypes) which deliberately selects for reality amongst competing models. That development is itself an interesting piece of counter-evidence. I’m coming to the view that representative accuracy is the more prevalent tendency in evolution, exemplified in every newly evolved sense from trilobite eyes to fMRI.

    There’s a fundamental sense in which we don’t have clarity about reality, since it seems to be made of ‘particles’ that aren’t particles, but waves, or probabilities…we get more and more accurate data and better models of how the world behaves, but what is doing the behaving seems to be harder to discern, and even suggests it might be impossible to know. That doesn’t mean we’re getting further from it through evolutionary pressure to blind us, merely that it never was going to be easy/possible. And it certainly doesn’t give reason to pronounce that reality is an illusion, as he seems to.

    Coming back to your post, I have also been thinking of consciousness as an illusion, but at the same time I find it a problematic description, especially combined with the thorny issue of ‘self’ as illusion too. These are thorny issues because English isn’t a lot of help in describing subtle distinctions for which we haven’t devised words yet. I think we’re mistaken if we think of ‘consciousness’ as a continuous stream, entity, etc…just as the self isn’t an entity. In that sense consciousness is an illusion, because we tend to think of it as an entity. But it’s happening, so it’s not an illusion in another sense. We have plenty of analogues of this to consider, though – a rainbow isn’t an illusion in the sense of ‘unreal’ – it’s just not what it seems (and there are those pesky particles, or solid objects for that matter – in setting up the class ‘illusion’ we evoke ‘real’, and we simply aren’t able to be clear about reality either).

    People thinking about the ‘hard problem’ often seem to be unable to unlearn our natural tendency to dualism. They say they’re looking for the bridge between the objective and subjective, but they’re thinking ‘matter’ and ‘mind’. Dyed-in-the-wool monists. But a perfectly reasonable monist interpretation of ‘subjective’ is ‘private’ or ‘internal’, and this led me recently to reconsider the whole ‘what-it’s-like-to-be-a-bat’ (Nagel) issue. And the mystery seems to be evaporating. My consciousness is what it’s like to be my evolved, embodied CNS. There’s something it’s like to be a bat, and I may never know it, but then I might also never know what it’s like to be you (I might, if the technology keeps developing). I won’t know what it’s like to be a stone, which even the stone won’t know. But there’s a kind of continuum. It’s not that consciousness is a substrate that’s present in the atom – this is where people often go next – push consciousness downwards – just that if you hit a rock, it ‘experiences’ vibrations (you have to squint to get this point!). We shouldn’t try to understand that as dumb matter having proto-consciousness, but instead it should help us see our consciousness as dumb matter. Billions of years of evolution have turned its vibrations (on being struck, say) into complex webs and cascades of electrical and chemical activity. There should be no mystery why we experience that, once we concede that nothing can avoid experiencing whatever is happening to it!

    • Hi LetterSquash,

      Great comment…and I see from your own blog that you are deep into this and similar subjects. I like your critique of Hoffman’s thesis – I haven’t read his book so I cannot comment with authority, but I understand your counter-point to be that we are actually building better models of reality – even though we come from an original place of illusion. That is quite fascinating.

      To ask if science will eventually lead us to ultimate “reality” is a natural projection of this thinking, but then, it might be better to suggest that our models are becoming increasingly more “predictive” – which sidesteps the question of whether it is some ultimate “reality” we are getting closer to. I suppose we may as well call it reality – only restated as “a shared picture of the world we experience which our models predict with increasing reliability”.

      And that comes back to another point you made – that English (or whatever language we are using) may be the problem. The words are constraining us and potentially limiting our vision. But some would say we have no choice but to use words (or equivalent tools in other modes of expression – including music and visual language) and that these are the vehicles we use to express these models of that “thing” we agree we share.

      I might conclude that the word “share” is the crux here. If we were unable to report on shared experiences (like, if you were a bat and I were a worm, and she was a tree and he was a kangaroo) then we would have a tenuous sense of reality – after trying to come to some common understanding. The fact that we humans have written mountains of books about reality suggests that there is indeed something we share. That may have to suffice as our definition of reality. Perhaps it is nothing more than the commonality of experiences we share.

  4. “The feeling of consciousness is an illusion”. Well it is a very convincing one. And since we feel it, sense it, live it, it can not be entirely illusory. I’ll side with Giolio Tononi.

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