About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Rationally Speaking cartoon: Illusions

(click on image for larger view)


  1. Ha, I know what this one refers to. What I wanted to know is whose illusion the self would be if the self is an illusion. I did not get any answer from other commenters, merely re-assertions of the original statement.

    Happy new year!

  2. Per Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach, there's recurring loops involved, so you escape the "trap" the red-headed kid sees. And, per my comments on previous threads about rejecting polarities, all three said entities can be partially illusory, quasi-illusory, or have aspects of their current definitions that are illusory without being fully so, or without being fully real and 100 percent non-illusory, either.

  3. I really don't get the point of the comic. How does the kid know the scientist is not an illusion?

    1. Ha! How does the scientist know the kid's not an illusion? Happy 2014 everyone!

  4. Gadfly,

    Sure, you can string those words together, but do they mean anything? I just read Harris' End of Faith, and in those chapters where he discusses neuroscience and Buddhism I keep wondering whether people don't get too tripped up with reifying processes, or with thinking that something must exist just because they have invented a name for it, and then considering it a profound insight if it turns out not to exist after all.

    For some reason, I am happy with accepting that my self is my body, and that my mind is my body thinking, and somehow I manage not to conclude the functional equivalent of "wow, this car consists of many individual parts that individually aren't cars, so the car is an illusion".

    1. I've come to realize that Dennett, who is usually very careful with his words, made a big mistake when he used the word "illusion", which the root of all these whose illusion is it comments.

    2. Sure they do .... recursive loops relate to some degree to emergent properties, of which consciousness is almost certainly one.

      The "quasi-illusory" and similar comments? Many things in life aren't at either end of a polarity. Sometimes multiple words are needed to get at least near exactitude on teh shading.

  5. The bald guy's only mistake here is not being precise enough. How about it seems like all physical phenomena, which includes all our actions, are determined by the initial conditions of the universe and the physical laws governing it, so if free will means acting in a way that is not determined by them, there's no such thing as free will, and if moral responsibility hinges on the ability to act with such free will, that doesn't exist either, and if you think conscious requires a central meaner, or if you think the parts of the body that creates consciousness need to add up to more than their sum, then consciousness doesn't exist either.

  6. Panel one: It is an illusion that decisions and desires are made soley by the conscious mind.

    Panel two: A continuous stream of consciousness is an illusion.

    Panel three: The soul, the notion of a disembodies consciousness, is reification of an illusion.

    Panel four: Well, I suppose this stays the same.

    As to "who" is suffering the illusion, the consciousness can also be called a point of view. The sensorium seems to me to be useful for integrating motion with the unprogrammable volitions needed for survival by animals into a coherent point of view, that is, creates the consciousness as a kind of virtual processor. It's activity is quite real, in the materialist sense. But it is an appearance, not a theater screen watched by a homunculus or psyche or soul that operates the muscles in response to what it sees. Sometimes people seem to be using the term "illusion" when appearance or phenomenon would be more appropriate.

  7. S Johnson,

    Not sure how that changes anything. Who experiences the appearance or the phenomenon? The sentence with the homunculus is even less clear because the homunculus would not be watching the consciousness, it would BE the consciousness.

    There is really no way of avoiding a self-contradiction unless we accept that we (our minds, our selves, whatever) really do exist.

    1. Don't you think it's possible for an illusion to be experienced by something that isn't conscious? A robot finding its way by optical navigation could be just as vulnerable to optical illusions as we are.

      Similarly, we could conceive of an AI that is programmed to believe itself to be conscious. We might regard that as an illusion, but we have no way of knowing if we are any different.

    2. Why yes, but that would be because the robot actually existed as opposed to being an illusion. I argue that the sentence "the self is an illusion" (and variants thereof) is self-refuting because if it were true there would be nothing to have an illusion, and thus it would be false.

    3. Hi Alex,

      I don't think those who claim the self is an illusion are talking about the physical body. The robot exists but that doesn't mean it is a "self", any more than a rock is. You may identify the self with the body, but not everybody does, and I certainly don't (I identify with my mind which I regard as a mathematical object).

      Here are a bunch of positions I don't necessarily agree with but that could be taken as interpretations of "the self is an illusion" without being self-refuting in the sense you have outlined.

      1. We don't exist. We are figments of God's imagination.
      2. The distinction we see between ourselves and the world is an illusion. All is one.
      3. We are biological robots and our brains are computers. The intuition that we are any more than this is an illusion.
      4. Our notions of self-identity are incoherent. (e.g. the me of tomorrow is a different entity than the me of yesterday)
      5. Our minds are not a single entity but a complex multitude of competing sub-selves.

    4. Yes, they don't actually claiming that the physical body is an illusion fits in nicely with me not actually claiming that the self is an immaterial soul-thingie. There seems to be a lot of talking past each other to be going on.

      Still, I find it hard to figure out how somebody can have an illusion without the self being something real. If we are God's illusion, then we are really non-existent, but then it is not our illusion so any attempt at trying to convince one of us of this is moot. Because, in case it isn't clear, then there is nobody there to be convinced, except perhaps God, and nobody there to do the convincing, except perhaps again God. Same for #2.

      I do not see any problems with #3 and #4 except that I would not use the same words as the people you paraphrase (computer, incoherent). Of course I am a biological machine, and of course I am a different person than I was twenty years ago. Still, my mind or self is the process of that biological machine cogitating, and its cogitation is not any more an illusion than combustion is an illusion because it is neither supernatural nor a tangible object.

      Finally, #5 reduces to a weird subclass of the composition / division-related fallacies. It is really no different than considering a car journey from Sydney to Melbourne an illusion because the engine consists of different parts. That is no deep philosophical insight but just plain ridiculous.

    5. Hi Alex,

      I wouldn't personally say the self is an illusion, but I do think there are severe problems with the concept of self and that in some respects we ought to acknowledge that the concept doesn't really work.

      Well, to be precise, it does work, but only because we haven't the technology to do teleportation, instant duplication or mind uploading. If those technologies did exist, we would have serious questions to ask regarding what constitutes a self. Those technologies may never exist, but even as hypotheticals they underscore some problems with our notions of personal identity.

    6. I consider it highly unlikely that this technology would ever be feasible, but even if it were: http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=1879

  8. There is no "one" experiencing the sensorium (or reconstructing memories of previous sensoria or projecting future sensoria.) The sensorium is the point of view of the organism. All tests of the world revealed by individual experience and reports of others, either by an individual's simplest interactions with the environment, or by the historic collective apparatus of formal science, have confirmed a complexity and coherence that cannot be explained by introspection of a "consciousness" separate from outer reality.

    There is no "self" constructing a model of the universe from sense data. The sense data are processed unconsciously into a sensorium, which is a point of view, i.e. consciousness. The notion of a self watching Dennett's Cartesian theater is the illusion.

    If there's any self-contradiction involved, it is the assertion that there is a consciousness separate from interaction with reality. I suppose the term for it would be radical epistemological skepticism. Maybe Locke (or whoever it was) was wrong in saying there is nothing in the consciousness that was not derived from experience. But whatever in consciousness may still be argued to be from somewhere else than experience, it is very much like the God argued to be possible by skeptical or antirealist philosophers: Nothing like what we mean in everyday conversation. Sleep, dreams, hallucinations, optical illusions, lapses in memory, simple errors in perception should suggest that instead the self is an activity created by experience, not something that analyzes experience.

    The idea that the senses cannot provide knowledge of reality contradicts (or so I think) the results of simple introspection, that it is precisely our "selves" that are variable and contingent and prone to error. Epistemological skepticism and antirealism, as near as I can tell, deny knowledge about the external world on behalf of a construct, a hypothetical consciousness or self, about which we have no knowledge either. Indeed I'm not sure what could even count as knowledge from introspection. Introspection has been like religion, no one seems to agree on what it teaches us.

    1. Speaking of Dennett, this is why I say he pulled his pu nches. No Cartesian Meaner would seem to lead to No Cartesian Free Willer.

      That said, as I said on another thread ... per Dennett vs. Gould on ev psych and spandrels, perhaps the idea that free will exists (as well as the idea that it must be "opposed" by determinism) may be a spandrel?

    2. Why do you think Dennett would not deny a Cartesian Free Willer?

      The Cartesian Meaner is a faulty explanation of consciousness. Free will on the other hand is not so mysterious from the compatibilist viewpoint (i.e. Dennett's). I'm sure he would agree with you that there is no Cartesian Free Willer.

    3. I don't *think* he does; he gives tangible evidence of doing so. In his warmed-over rehash of Brainstorms a few years ago, written after the likes of Wegner explicitly staked out the idea of "no Cartesian Free Willer," Dennett similarly had a chance to be that explicit, and wasn't.

    4. I just think he's making a different argument. Not explicilty making a statement about the Cartesian Free Willer might be indicative of its irrelevance from his point of view .

      I think I understand Dennett's position pretty well as it's pretty much the same as my own (although I am not a compatibilist, this is a semantic rather than metaphysical difference).

      He thinks the brain is a machine. Of course he doesn't believe there's a magical homunculus intervening to give us free will. He thinks that free will is a mechanical, deterministic phenomenon, and that a sophisticated robot could also be considered to have free will.

      There's just no way to construe what he has written about consciousness and the mind to think that he would ever entertain a Cartesian Free Willer, or that the denial of such a thing would in any way contradict anything he has said.

  9. Is it just me, or does anyone else feel a bit self-conscious (in an idiomatic rather than a philosophical sense) engaging in serious discussion – and the discussion here, as usual, is not only serious but very interesting – in comment threads attached to these (in my view) not entirely successful attempts at – what exactly? Provoking? Promoting? (There certainly seems to be a promotional element but are these strips designed to promote philosophy, or a particular take on philosophical questions? And to whom exactly?)

    One philosophy department I was familiar with used a Doonesbury strip to promote its program. Mr Butts (the talking cigarette), when challenged about the contradictions or paradoxes of his big tobacco message, happily embraced them: he was, he explained, a philosophy major.

    1. Mark,

      well, I'm actually (positively) surprised by the amount of discussion that these cartoons are generating. Sorry you don't seem to like them, but they are simply the result of me having somewhat creative fun in the evening instead of watching tv... And yes, they are supposed to be thought provoking, though they obviously don't represent "arguments."

  10. S Johnson,

    Wheresoever did you get the idea that anybody postulates a '"consciousness" separate from outer reality? Of course it is not separate. But that does not mean that it is 'no "one" experiencing the sensorium. The organism does. It is the "one".

    Again, car, car consists of parts, car is still one car, driving the car to New York is not an illusion.

    Not rocket science.

    1. All those people who have talked of the soul postulate a self separate from outer reality. Historically in the European tradition this has been the vast majority. As near as I can tell the large majority of philosophers and scientists also work with a notion of self as something separate from outer reality. It is reality that is unknowable, or chaotic, or a deception, as in Berkeley and Bostrom and Buddhism. Things like the insistence that philosophical zombies are a genuine concept to my mind show pretty clearly that people really do conceive of consciousness as something separate from reality.

      In one respect, I don't think we disagree. But I do think that some aspects of the notion of self or consciousness are in fact illusions. Those are the aspects I tried to highlight with my humorous rewrite of the first three panels in my first post in the thread. I suppose we must simply disagree that these aspects are in practice almost never separated from the use of the terms self and consciousness. Skeptical and antirealist epistemology argues that "we" cannot know anything about reality, as if "we" are not part of reality. If it's not rocket science, why is it so difficult?

    2. I agree with S Johnson,

      Any talk of 'illusion' must be framed in relation to what is 'real'. What is 'real' is a metaphysical concept not an absolute. Similarly the concept of 'free will' depends on a clear separation of 'self' and 'environment'. There are useful conceptions of what is 'real' but not absolute ones. There are useful distinctions between 'self' and 'environment' but not absolute distinctions.

      I think it is the swapping back and forth between absolutes and concepts useful under some assumed reference frames, but not others that lead to many of the disagreements in the 'free will' debates. I think the term 'illusion' is especially unhelpful in this regard unless the language is clear regarding the level of 'reality'.

      If we are talking about physical determinism then what is the boundary between a 'self' and it's environment at the physical level of 'reality' when the atoms are in constant flux? It can't be based on the atoms which are sometimes in the environment sometimes part of the 'self'. Is it based on the 'self' organizing patterns of replication, repair etc... If so these many 'sub-selves' are also interdependent within the larger 'self' and with the environment. Many of these patterns never reach consciousness. Those 'sub-selves' that are bubbling up somehow constitute a continuum of various levels of experience.

      We don't 'will' our 'self' to go to sleep (that tends to be counterproductive). We can however place our 'self' in a friendly internal and external environment for that pattern to take hold of our experience. I think finding those types of friendly environments is a type of 'will'. The type worth having.

  11. All of this leads me to state why I don't accept compatiblist versions of free will. Why should free will "bend itself" so that, per the subtitle of one Dennett book, the only varieties of free will worth discussing are compatibilist ones? Why don't we instead say that the only varieties of determinism worth discussing are ones compatible with some version of free will?

    1. >Why should [...] the only varieties of free will worth discussing [be] compatibilist ones<

      Because only compatibilist free will is coherent.

      How would non-compatibilst free will work?

      We don't know. But imagine we did have an explanation. Such an explanation would need to explain decision making in terms of more primitive operations.

      And then we'd be right back where we started.

      If free will exists, and if free will is not magic, it must have some mechanism by which it works. But a mechanistic explanation is exactly what free will supporters want to deny.

    2. I don't think you're getting where I'm coming from (while I reject your, and Dennett's idea that that's the only variety of free will "having," let alone being coherent.)

      First, "materialist" is not the same as "mechanist." Second, "mechanist," depending on how one defines it, is not the same as "determinist." I mean, chaos theory tells us that, among other things.

      So, that said, why do compatibilists want free will to "bend" and not determinism? I've seen no good answer.

      And, with polite respect for our different approaches to issues of the mind, I don't see any hard reductionist answer somehow landing on my plate of good answers.

    3. Hi Gadfly,

      I'm not sure you get what I mean by mechanistic. I mean once free will is explained like any other natural phenomenon, in terms of its parts. It doesn't have to be deterministic. It doesn't even have to be material. But once it's explained to the same degree as, say, photosynthesis, it becomes a machine of some kind, and once that has happened libertarian free willers will not be satisfied.

      >why do compatibilists want free will to "bend" and not determinism?<

      Because determinism is defined and free will is not. It's a vague concept that has no supporting evidence and in fact could not ever have supporting evidence because we have no idea what it's supposed to be or what it ought to look like. It's not random, it's not deterministic, it's... other.

      As far as I can see it's an intuition we use to operate in our daily lives and to relate to each other. It's not a real physical thing and there is no reason to think it is.


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