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The Mind Body Problem: Is consciousness an illusion?

Updated on September 24, 2016

In the philosophy of mind, the theory of functionalism has been unable to account for the experiences of consciousness and specifically the existence of qualia, the raw feels of experience. The purpose of this paper will be to present the case against functionalism and physicalism in general given by Thomas Nagel and Frank Jackson and to explore criticisms of this argument given by Daniel Dennett and David Lewis. Finally, I will make an attempt to reconcile these two viewpoints and present possible solutions for the mind body problem.

In order to begin this paper, I must first establish what exactly defines functionalism. Functionalism, very roughly, is the idea that what makes a brain state a certain type of state is its functional role. This means that mental states have causal relationships to other mental states and different sensory input. There are studies performed by neuroscientists that have contributed empirical data to back up this claim as well as it being a common view among neuroscientists that what humans perceive as consciousness is in actuality an illusion.

The idea that consciousness is an illusion seems to some to reduce human beings to be automations. The definition of consciousness itself seems to be a contradiction to functionalist views. The idea of consciousness as an illusion seems tied to the very idea that there is a self in order to perceive this illusion. This may be the core reason that the theory invites so many criticisms, simply because it seems to go against the intuitions of what consciousness is and what it means.

Thomas Nagel attempts to refute functionalism in his paper What is it Like to be a Bat? by using the bat’s sonar ability as an example. (1) Nagel points out that even if a person was able to know all of the physical information about how a bat is able to use this ability that does not mean that they would be able to perform this ability or know what it might be like to be a bat and to perceive the world the way a bat sees it. To many, including Frank Jackson (2), this argument does not reject physicalism.

In my personal analysis I do not think that Nagel’s argument disproves physicalism nor is it the same argument made by Frank Jackson. In order for Nagel’s argument to really work it would have to be able to account for all the brain and physical differences between humans and bats. It is far too easy for the physicalist to simply say that we cannot understand what being a bat is like because of the limitations of our physical make up. If we lived on a world in which human beings could somehow transform themselves into bats and back again then such understanding shows a physical connection to the information that is being conveyed. Nagel has not separated the qualia of being a bat from the physical experience of being a bat and the evolutionary functions that have arisen in bat physiology.

The argument made by Frank Jackson is a different one but it does indeed appear to be the same on the surface. Jackson uses the example of Mary,(3) a scientist living in a completely black and white room, who is able to learn all the information about colors that it is possible to learn from the light spectrum and all the information she can possibly learn about the brain and how it perceives color. Despite this information Mary cannot know what red is until she actually experiences red. If she was given a bunch of colors and asked to identify red it would be impossible. It is Jackson’s contention that Mary has learned something that physicalism cannot account for.

In his paper, Epiphenomenal Qualia, Jackson uses another example without the contrived basis of the Mary thought experiment. He proposes a young man named Fred who is able to see another color in the spectrum that nobody else can see. (4) When Fred is given a pile of tomatoes he is able to consistently separate them by color despite the fact that they all look to be the same color to everybody else. To Fred, these colors are as different as yellow and blue are to everybody else. Jackson states that while it would seem to somebody who could not see the color that Fred knows nothing that they do not know it would indeed be true that he has knowledge that they do not have.

It is interesting then that Jackson gives the example of a scientist giving others the ability to see what Fred sees. While he is right to say that Fred does indeed have knowledge that others do not, if you can reduce this knowledge back to the physical apparatus, simply there is something different about his eyes, can it really be said to be something that is apart from the physical?

Daniel Dennett makes a criticism of the Mary thought experiment and the idea of qualia in general in his paper Quining Qualia. He states that the knowledge about red can in fact be obtained physically but that this is beyond our current ability and knowledge. (5) In this way, he claims, we are merely twisting our ideas of qualia to fit our intuitions. Dennett has a point. In the case of the Mary experiment it may be possible that another scientist could simply stimulate Mary’s brain and implant the knowledge of red in her mind. In this way there would be no disconnect between the physical brain state and “what it is like” to see red.

Dennett also calls into question whether the “what it’s like” produces true knowledge. He uses the example of a bird call in which a person may have knowledge of what a certain bird’s call is like before they hear it. Once they have heard it they now know exactly what hearing it is like but Dennett calls into question if they would be able to know if a call that was an “octave higher” would still be the call of the same bird.

Perhaps a better example comes in Dennett’s use of taste. In the beginning of his paper he imagines someone who likes cauliflower while he dislikes it.(6) He points out that his intuition would be that the qualia experienced by the person who likes cauliflower is different from his own. He then uses an example of two coffee tasters both of whom used to like Maxwell House coffee but now no longer think it is the best. (7) One thinks that his taste buds (receptors) have changed and the other thinks that his palate has changed overtime. Dennett argues that the difference between the two is indistinguishable and indeterminable and that this calls qualia into question.

Dennett is right that a person would not be able to know the difference but the only thing he may have proven is that a person’s perception of qualia can be determined by past qualia. This brings to mind the example used by David Hume of shades of color. Somebody who knows of two shades of blue may be able to imagine a color that is between the two of them, though somebody who knows green may not be able to imagine red. (8) At the same time could it be possible to implement this knowledge in the brain purely physically using currently unavailable technology?

In our society the “what it is like,” kind of knowledge is valued more greatly over the “what it is” and “what it does” types of knowledge that one gains in academic pursuits. A person who studies war and knows everything there is to know about every war that has been fought in human existence might be scoffed at by a person that has fought in a single war as having insufficient knowledge. This is an intuition that people generally have that the “what it’s like” is superior but is it really a superior form of knowledge if it can be found to be knowledge at all.

Somebody who has studied and teaches economics may have never run a business before. Now imagine a person who has run a business, a small restaurant in Los Angeles, California. While some of the knowledge that a person may have about running a business may not be gained through experience we will assume that in this case most of what this person has learned has strictly been through trial and error. I will not dispute that this person has gained knowledge through owning this business but what if they were to be uprooted to running a business in New York where they sell women’s handbags?

If you were running a business in New York selling handbags it would be dumb to take the advice of the California restaurant owner over the knowledge of the economics professor. The “what it’s like,” form of knowledge can only teach very specific things and relies on the memory of past qualia in order to do it. Even if Dennett is wrong, that in the case of Mary you really don’t learn anything new by seeing red if you already know “everything” about color, what experience actually teaches is still a question up for strong debate.

David Lewis attempts to answer this question in his paper What Experience Teaches. (9) Lewis makes the distinction between egocentric information or phenomenal information and true knowledge. He argues that in the Mary case she does not gain any kind of knowledge but gains the ability to see color. The basis for this is that in order for knowledge to be truly knowledge it must be true and in the case of color experiences and other qualia the knowledge is only true while it is being experienced.

To me this seems a reasonable claim. When one sees red a certain part of the brain will light up in a scan and when they have the same experience again that same part will light up. This takes us back to functionalism when we see that a part of the brain has taken up a certain function that relays an experience. Information and ability are not the same when we look at them no matter how entangled they may be with each other.

Such an example as my own, the business man and the economist, fits right into what Lewis is claiming. The restaurant owner does not gain any real knowledge that is true about running a business from running that single business. They instead gain the ability to run that business effectively. This ability would not serve them well in a different kind of business, in a different state with a different kind of cliental. The knowledge that the economics professor has is true on general terms while the “knowledge” the restaurant owner is only true on very specific terms.

There are many that feel that the existence of consciousness cannot be reduced to the physical because it serves “no evolutionary purpose.” This is a wrongheaded assumption in my opinion and the paper by Lewis may prove why. The main problem with the construction of computers that can exhibit artificial intelligence is that what Lewis refers to as the ability kind of knowledge and others call qualia cannot be implemented successfully in a computer program. Despite the fact that computers are capable of processing information much more quickly than a human brain ever could they cannot learn new abilities.

Many programs have been invented that attempt to speak the way a human does. These programs can be accessed over the internet and talked to by hundreds of users a day in an attempt to learn human speech and approximate it. While they can be convincing for very short conversations, the fact that they often will contradict themselves while being asked questions and seem to be simply parroting back responses from humans they have conversed with, makes it easy to spot the computer when conversing with both the computer program and a human.

When we look at consciousness it may be true that slugs do not have it or that a starfish may not but when we look at a sentient being such as a cat it seems obvious that they have qualia and a consciousness, while being simpler than our own, is definitely present. As human beings evolved and gained the ability to learn through making of tools and wearing clothing to shield from the cold the strictly physical implements that beasts have were no longer necessary to the survival of the organism.

In this way qualia has an obvious evolutionary advantage if Lewis is right that its purpose is to allow us to give us a tool which to learn new abilities from. This does not necessarily mean that consciousness is an “illusion” but that the act of self-reflection is necessary in order for human beings to evolve, form a society and all the other things that we have accomplished that other species on the planet have not.

In this way I think the “what it’s like to be a bat” is only slightly more interesting than the “what it’s like to be a slug” or a computer or a thermostat. If I could be a bat for a day I think the simplicity of what passes for bat consciousness would be so radically different from human consciousness that I would not be able to truly process what it would be like. In this way I don’t think it is relevant to human consciousness at all. The ability to use sonar is tied to the physicality of being a bat just like Jackson’s example of Fred being able to see an extra color might be tied to differences in his eye or brain.

While I do not reject that the phenomenon that we call qualia still raises interesting questions about the brain and what exactly consciousness is and means, I do not think that a physicalism explanation can be in anyway rejected. Those questions that still need answered merely lie in a better understanding of the brain and how it works and not in metaphysical ponderings about other life forms, alternate worlds or thermostats. If the mind body problem is to be answered the bridge through the explanatory gap is in the processes of the brain itself.


1. Thomas Nagel, What is it Like to be a Bat? in Philosophy of Mind edited by David Chalmers (Oxford University Press, 2002) 219-225

2. Frank Jackson, Epiphenomenal Qualia in Philosophy of Mind edited by David Chalmers (Oxford University Press, 2002) 273

3. Jackson, 275

4. Jackson, 274-275

5. Daniel C. Dennett, Quining Qualia in Philosophy of Mind edited by David Chalmers (Oxford University Press, 2002) 226-228

6. Dennett, 228

7. Dennett, 231-234

8. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Dover Publications, Inc. 2004) 8-11

9. David Lewis, What Experience Teaches in Philosophy of Mind edited by David Chalmers (Oxford University Press, 2002) 281-294


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