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Dec 1, 2019

‘Qualia’, the subjective qualities of experience, are the bedrock of some theories of consciousness - but they are a fiction according to my guest in this episode. With great charm and passion, Keith Frankish makes the case for ‘illusionism’.

0:54 We kick off chatting about Keith’s humorous definition of a philosopher as ‘an expert in everything and nothing.’ That leads us to Wilfrid Sellar’s famous description of the aim of philosophy: “to understand how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.”

4:36 Keith argues that the strong concept of ‘emergence’ isn’t very helpful when thinking about complex systems like brains. It’s a reasonable assumption that the brain works just as predictably as computers, which we can build and control.

7:26 “I want to eliminate them” says Keith of phenomenal properties. And we’re off….!

Keith introduces ‘qualia’ aka ‘phenomenal properties’. He avoids trotting out the usual account and first talks through some things we can all agree on. Qualia are the ‘something else’ that is supposedly happening while all the functional stuff is going on - they are supposed to be the subjective experience occurring alongside or in addition to cognition and behaviour.

11:30 I try to offer a concise definition of phenomenal properties, and Keith explains why he deliberately doesn’t like to start that way around: if you start with the common definition of qualia, you’ve already loaded the dice in favour of consciousness being a mystery! “You get captured by Cartesian gravity.”

17: 29 By defining phenomenal properties in the traditional way we “create an artefact that’s inexplicable - and then claim there’s a big mystery!”

22:50 Keith talks me through Dennett’s famous paper ‘Quining Qualia’, where he identifies 4 properties generally ascribed to qualia, and then goes on to show that there can’t possibly be such things! The four properties are:

Private - They can only be known by you.

Ineffable - You can’t really describe them, you can only note similarities and differences.

Immediately or directly apprehensible - you know them with absolute certainty

Intrinsic - they don’t represent anything external, they are part of the intrinsic nature of experience.

27:08 Keith makes an often neglected point: we generally describe our experiences as being properties of the world, not merely properties of our experience of the world. So the yellowness of a banana is not merely a feature of our experience, but of the banana!

28:08 What was ‘Galileo’s Error’? It’s the title of Philip Goff’s recent book which sets out his argument for panpsychism. Keith argues Galileo made a second, more significant error than the one Philip picks on: he plucks phenomenal properties out of the world and and places them in our minds.

29:50 We’ve been sidling up to it, now we tackle Keith’s ILLUSIONISM head on.

Keith introduces the positive element of illusionism: the project of explaining why this way of thinking is so compelling. Possibly, Keith suggests, because it’s useful, maybe even adaptive.   

He suggests that ‘phenomenal properties’ are really just packages full of the meanings of things, of the ways we respond to and interact with the world. Packaging them up in like this is a useful way of compressing the complexity of experience into discrete bundles. But the packages are just a useful cognitive trick - they aren’t mysterious metaphysical objects in themselves!

36:48 How does all of this this relate to the famous thought experiment about Mary the Neuroscientist?

41:17 Illusionism is a bit like watching a movie. What you’re actually seeing is a series of still images, but your visual system (mis)represents them as movement. Phenomenal properties are like the movement - they’re not really there, we just represent things as if they were.

43:00  All this talk of ‘representation’ leads me to wonder how much illusionism overlaps with the Higher Order Theory of consciousness, which was defended by the Joseph LeDoux in the last episode. Keith explain HOTs and how they are very similar in structure to his own theory, with one crucial difference.  

48:30 Does illusionism suggest that we could create androids that think they’re consciousness in exactly the same way as we do? 

51:40 What about the most common objection: how could is possibly be wrong about the nature of my own experience! If I’m feeling something, you can’t tell me I’m wrong about that. Keith responds that experience is the result of lots of lower level processes which get represented as being a certain way at higher levels; so you can be wrong. 

54:40 THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: You’re going to have a painful operation and you have the choice of two anaesthetics: one of them will shut off the qualia, so you will have no phenomenal experience of pain BUT you will show all the behavioural manifestations of pain - screaming, writhing, crying.  The other anaesthetic does the opposite, it quells all the physical and behavioural responses to pain, but the qualia will be unaffected, so you continue to have some feeling of pain.  Which would you choose? 

58:08 Where does the research programme of illusionism go next?

1:03:15 We finish with a short discussion of Keith’s work on ‘dual process’ theory. This was made famous by Daniel Kahneman - the idea there’s a slow, deliberate ‘System 2’ for careful, rational thought and a rule-of-thumb ‘System 1’  for fast, intuitive responses. Keith looked at how we similarly apply folk psychology to very deliberate, conscious behaviour and also to fairly automatic, habitual behaviour. 

The End

P.S. A few days after we recorded the interview, Keith posted this illusionist re-wording of Imagine on Twitter. I love it:

Imagine there're no qualia

It's easy if you try

No feel or what-its-likeness

Just plain old cog sci

Imagine all the zombies

Being just like us

You may say I'm a quiner

But there's nothing wrong with that

I hope someday you'll join us

And learn what it's like to be a bat



Keith’s article on illusionism for Aeon magazine:

Keith’s Twitter

Keith’s Dyspectic Definitions:

We also touch on Philip Goff’s book Galileo’s Error and  Nicholas Humphrey’s book Soul Dust.

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Ilan Goodman