Is Consciousness an Illusion?

The notion of consciousness reopens that age-old contest between philosophy, psychology, and biology. Does consciousness arise from mere physical processes from the brain (Koch and Greenfield seem to think so) or is it more of a spiritual entity, closely related to views of the soul (advocated by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes – I talk more about these views here).

In the debate about consciousness, what goes hand in hand with it is the unconscious. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious argues that it harbours repressed and traumatic feelings and memories from our early childhoods, as well as socially unacceptable desires. However, the general view about the unconscious mind is that it is responsible for implicit knowledge (automatic skills and habits). It is believed that the unconscious presents itself in our dreams. Rosalind Cartwright argues that there is a degree of continuity between conscious life and the unconscious representations which we find in dreams. It is believed that they serve the purpose of compartmentalizing and regulating the emotions we experience from conflicts in real life. Dreams offer the chance to work out our problems and make better sense of the world. Perhaps this is why we feel better about something after we’ve gone to sleep.

dream-2924176_960_720
Our dreams express many unconscious perceptions about our waking life.

Some of the most famous work on consciousness comes from the Libet experiments in the 1980s. Benjamin Libet produced some of the most fascinating findings, and has since been heavily cited in discussions about free will as well. He measured the time it took between participants becoming aware of the urge to act and the actual act (the pressing of a button). The difference between this conscious will and the action was around 200 milliseconds. However, it was also found that brain activity in the motor cortex (what Benjamin described as ‘readiness potential’) lit up around 500 milliseconds before subjects reported their awareness of the conscious will to act. Libet therefore had thrown open the door and suggested that it could be our unconscious that makes our decisions rather than conscious will, as originally thought.  This, of course, threatens the idea that we have free will – as it is our brains which actually decide for us!

Libet's clock
Libet’s participants were asked to note the position of a dot circulating on a screen like the hand of a clock.

Note the distinct link between brain and mind here. Of the brain as manifested by biological, automatic processes and the mind (or cognition) as conceptualized by our will, choices, thoughts, perceptions etc.). This reverts us back to the different views of consciousness found in psychology and philosophy.

The Libet experiments have shaken up the idea of consciousness as the thing that we possess and utilise to make decisions. But surely consciousness must be something more than just neural processes that somehow give rise to our awareness and perception of the world?

Are consciousness and free will merely illusions? Are they just some things that were created by the brain for important purposes? Could it be that these illusions are necessary for our survival? After all, it makes sense that it is necessary for us to believe that we have some capability of choice (whether we actually do or don’t) in order to live and function as we do!

If consciousness is an illusion we must then go on to question our identity and sense of self which could lead us down a road of existentiality where we ask ourselves if we exist, and if we do exist, do we exist only as biological machines? This does not seem plausible to me, and I’m sure Descartes would agree. Machines cannot deny their own consciousness.

And so, consciousness could be an integration of both mind and matter, or even software developed by the brain to aid living. I personally like this idea as it invites us to think about the purposes of both the conscious and unconsciousness which psychologists are ever keen to explore.

Yet, where consciousness comes from and how it comes about are still ongoing debates that will maybe never be settled. Still, the explanations offered by philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience so far have been tremendous and I can’t wait for more.

Thanks for reading,

Alice Allen

Today in the History of Psychology (Dec 07, 1910) 

Eleanor Jack Gibson was born. Her contributions to the development of perceptual learning are well-known as the ‘visual cliff’ experiments, which studied depth perception in children. It is thanks to these studies that a greater understanding of perceptual development emerged.

Psychology Pun of the Week

A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother.

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14 thoughts on “Is Consciousness an Illusion?

  1. Love this post, Alice!! I actually have a very similar post on my blog called, “The Illusion of Conscious Will” that I wrote for my Philosophy of Social Science class. I talk about the Libet experiments in it too :-). By the way, I just found your blog today and I LOVE it. I read your about me page and couldn’t help but notice some similarities between us. I was a Philosophy/Psychology double major at my University too, but this past year (my last year in college) I decided to stick with Philosophy and make Psychology my minor insetad—basically the reverse of what you did! Anyway, love the blog!

    Keep up the good work!
    –Isa

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey there, Isa. So sorry for the delay in replying -thank you so much for your support. I’ve just checked out your own post and it is extremely well written – no wonder you received 100 marks for it! A very interesting read 🙂 and wow, such a strange coincidence! Can I ask what made you choose Philosophy? I love your blog too and can’t wait to read more! Thanks for reaching out 🙂

      All the best,
      Alice

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    • Thank you! I agree. I feel our brains are developed in a certain way as physical processes to facilitate our survival. What’s interesting is that social and environmental factors shape our cognition, and even that our brain circuitry can be changed! For example by addiction, if we are addicted, our brain misinterprets the substance as holding high evolutionary value. Leading individuals to carry out behaviour without really knowing why… Perhaps consciousness is therefore not a direct process and like you said, simply an output of our brain matter. Do you think this means we have no free will?

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  2. Aha, what a great question. The topic of free will fascinates me. I am reading into it nowadays and hopefully come to some sort of internal agreement, and can share it on my blog.
    On the one hand I realize that on a sub-atomic scale, quantum mechanics dictates probabilistic outcomes. There is an illusion of choice, but the kernel that will favor one outcome over the other has already been planted by some unrelated process. Something that chaos theory tells us.
    But as an entrepreneur, having no control over my decisions makes me extremely uncomfortable!
    For now I feel free will is a mix of nature-nurture. But this is not a satisfying answer…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Quantum mechanics is so intriguing in relation to this question and is something I need to look into more. Free will also relates to the topic of what kind of universe we live in. For example, there is the idea that we live in a ‘block’ universe where every event plays out in motion just like a movie with a beginning, middle, and end. I like to think about philosophy of religion here too. And I know there’s a lot of thought around predestination and whether God has determined our lives for us or if, based on our actions in life, this decides if we to to heaven or hell. Definitely so much to think about.

      I’d be delighted to read your thoughts if you choose to write about this one day. It’s always good to think and question everything 🙂

      And it’s certainly motivating that we ‘choose our own success’. I don’t think we’d get anything done if we believed everything just simply happens to us!

      The great thing about it is I don’t think there will ever be a satisfying answer, but it’s absolutely fascinating to think about haha!

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  3. Alfred Mele has a pretty convincing response to Libet’s experiments. Mele makes distinctions about what different actions and intentions etc. are, and he uses the same data and methodologies as Libet.
    An American philosopher, who I believe is still a professor, Adina Roskies argues for a compatibilist view of free will with neuroscientific evidence. To grossly oversimplify her arguments, neuroscience can at best tell us how we make decisions, but not why.
    Also, sorry for just spouting a bunch of names! I took a class on neuroethics just last semester so I spent plenty of time buried in these readings. I hope that you like them too, if you decide to look into them!

    Liked by 1 person

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