A rainbow in the ocean on a recent trip to Kauai’s Na Pali coast

How consciousness co-creates the rainbow

Illusionism, the strange school of thought in consciousness studies, argues that the experience of consciousness itself is an illusion. I argue very much to the contrary: the only thing we truly know is real is our personal experience.

Rainbows are a common and extraordinarily beautiful phenomenon where I live in Hawaii. The frequent rains alternating with tropical sun provide the perfect conditions for rainbow creation.

What is a rainbow? Is there a physical arc-shaped structure in the sky after a rain shower? In a measurable physical sense, only the component parts are actually there: the atmospheric particles, including the raindrops, and the light energy passing through. The rainbow itself requires an observer equipped with vision to be in a certain position with respect to the elements. To see it, you must be facing away from the sun, and the moisture droplets in the air need to refract the sun’s rays back at your eyes at a specific angle — between 40 and 42 degrees. You are, therefore, the mathematical origin for every rainbow you see. No two people will see the same one.

Rainbows are perspective-dependent structures that arise from physics “out there” in the external world, but also require an observer to be in the right position to witness and “create” this magic. The rainbow is, accordingly, a great example of the more general notion of perspectival truth. By “perspectival” I mean that it requires a certain relationship between you, the observer, and the physical world in order to be experienced. We co-create, with the physical world out there, the experienced rainbow.

Keith Frankish, a British philosopher, argued in a recent essay that consciousness is in fact “like a rainbow.” He writes that “it seems to me that my consciousness is an inner world, where the world around me is rendered in private mental qualities — ‘qualia’ — for my benefit alone. But there isn’t such a world. Neuroscience finds nothing like it in the brain …. Rather, it finds complex trains of neural activity proceeding in parallel and triggering a host of reactions — physiological, psychological, and behavioural.”

He sums up his position clearly as follows:

Consciousness, whatever it is: real

A private qualia-filled mental world: illusory

The impression of a private qualia-filled mental world: real

Brain processes that produce the impression of a private qualia-filled mental world: real

Frankish is a proponent of a school of thought known as illusionism. He makes clear in his recent essay and other works that he’s not arguing that consciousness itself is an illusion; rather, he argues that consciousness is “real enough.” But like the rainbow as we experience it, the phenomenal properties of our introspective experience, he proposes, are not real. They deceive us in the same way that our senses can more generally deceive us.

So what are phenomenal properties, exactly? One example is a feeling like “bliss.” At the sight of a rainbow, an individual might feel a wash of what they might call bliss — a combination of peace, awe hope, and gratitude tingling through the body. But from an external perspective there is just trains of neural and biological activity, which are experienced by that person as “bliss.” The qualia of bliss are therefore an illusion, a misrepresentation of our experiential state, Frankish argues.

Illusionism is a minority view in the study of consciousness, though it is also supported to some degree by American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett and neuroscientist Michael Graziano, among others.

I believe Illusionism does little to solve the questions at the center of many of our inquiries about consciousness — namely what is consciousness, how does it relate to the physical world, and why do we have it?

In my opinion, Frankish and the illusionists simply evade these questions and leave us floundering to explain the most immediate facts of our own experience. So what if a substance called bliss, for instance, cannot be found in the brain of the person experiencing it by an outside observer looking in? Why does this make it any less real?

In fact, we are learning more and more that specific experiential states can in fact be measured through the brainwaves of EEG and other tools (see more below on this). So it won’t be long before we can look at a person’s EEG and know they are experiencing “bliss” or “sadness” or “love.”

Essentially, the illusionists conflate the first-person and third-person perspectives, continuing a long (and incorrect) modern tradition of attempting to “be scientific” by removing the first-person observer, and thus consciousness itself, from science. This approach forgets that all science is done by humans, who are conscious, and, accordingly, all science is done from a necessarily first-person perspective. Leaving out this first-person perspective leads to an “absent-minded science” that gives us at best a partial understanding of our universe and our place in it.

There is, in fact, no third-person perspective anywhere — it’s all first-person, all the way down. There is no “objective observer” anywhere to be found. When we are “being objective” we are trying to encompass as large a perspective as possible, but there is, necessarily, always just one perspective we each experience — our own, in this moment, now.

I argue that “constitutive panpsychism” — the idea that all physical stuff has at least a tiny bit of consciousness, and that mind and matter are two aspects of a single underlying reality — does a much better job of navigating the gap between tangible and physical reality and phenomenal experience. (In fact, I have argued this extensively in various essays and articles, and my 2014 book, Eco, Ego, Eros.)

The primary argument for this position is as follows: When we observe the evolution of biological forms, including nervous systems and their precursors, we see incremental change over the eons. Simplicity generally evolves into complexity over the eons (not always, but generally). Why wouldn’t the evolution of consciousness follow the evolution of form, in terms of simple beginnings and then slow complexification over time?

I agree with Frankish that our mental world of representations and feelings is not, of course, always a perfect reflection of the physical world — either the one out there or the one inside our bodies and brains. Indeed, our evolved and naturally selected brains and bodies have brought us to a state where we create inner representations that best allow us to survive and reproduce — with a lot of cool bonuses like the ability to appreciate and create beauty, to tell jokes, to sing songs, etc., that have evolved along with our big brains (see, for example, The Mating Mind, by Geoffrey Miller, which discusses the role of sexual selection (sometimes a more powerful force than natural selection itself) in the evolution of the human brain).

But if, as Frankish argues, the notion of a “private qualia-filled mental world” is illusory, how can he also argue that the “impression of a private qualia-filled mental world” is very real? What is an “impression” if not a conscious experience, a “private qualia-filled mental world”? This is where the arguments of the illusionists seem for me, and many others, to fall apart. The experience of an illusion is still an experience, so it appears that the illusionists are making a kind of category error.

Frankish ends his essay as follows:

So trying to find the neural correlates of the qualia world is as sensible as trying to find an arc-shaped structure in the atmosphere after a rain shower. And searching for a solution to the Hard Problem is like looking for the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow!

But as I argued at the start of this piece, we know quite a lot about the physical correlates of the “arc-shaped structure in the atmosphere after a rain shower.” Why, then, would we not attempt to find the neural correlates of personal experience — the felt rainbow in your mind?

Scientists have already identified felt experiences based solely on brainwave patterns measured by EEG — these electrical patterns are one strong candidate for the neural correlates of consciousness and I am lead editor of a research topic at Frontiers in Human Neuroscience looking specifically at these kinds of “electromagnetic field theories of consciousness.” One study correctly identified the experience of an apple based on the shape of EEG patterns. Another identified faces of people that the subjects were seeing.

Consciousness is a dance between the physical world we live in and our senses and brains, which create representations of that world. Qualitative experiences arise in response to our living in the world. In talking about consciousness as a generalized feature of our big brains and impressive sensory perception, we capture every rainbow, every waterfall, every shooting star, every laugh, and every cry, as the sum total of any possible experience. They are as real as the cosmos itself is real.

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Tam Hunt

Tam Hunt

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