Reply To: Daniel Dennet's claim that consciousness is an illusion

  • Mike Todd

    May 11, 2023 at 11:35 am

    Don and Whit,<div>

    I hope you won’t mind if I share some related thoughts, beginning with a definition.


    Physicalism is the view that reality may be exhaustively described by (the equations of) physics. It makes no overt claims about whether reality is fundamentally material in nature. Nevertheless, physics itself posits an exclusive set of properties for its fundaments, which on physicalism are, in toto, the ground of reality; and it may be inferred from these properties that physicalism, as it currently stands, entails that reality is neither fundamentally animate nor fundamentally aware and is therefore, arguably, material in nature.

    The above definition is, of course, my own. However, I believe it more or less aligns with what Bernardo Kastrup, in The Idea of the World, refers to as “mainstream physicalism”. Mainstream physicalism entails scientific materialism. I merely abbreviate this by saying that physicalism entails materialism. By my own (or Kastrup’s) definition, I am not a (mainstream) physicalist.

    As you may be aware, some have attempted more nuanced definitions of physicalism variously inclusive of mind/consciousness/awareness. A few examples of such can be accessed from here:

    I confess to having mixed feelings about the utility of these and similar definitions, and for the time being, I choose to set aside physicalism as an inherently problematic term and to simply say that physics, comprehensively but not exhaustively, describes phenomenal reality. On this view, it follows that phenomenal reality, largely but not exclusively, behaves as if it were material in nature.

    I hope you’ll indulge my adding a few more definitions of my own.

    Phenomenal reality:

    Phenomenal reality is the reality humans experience in perception per se or in perception via instrumentation that expands the range or scope of perception. Phenomenal reality is how humans perceive manifestations of fundamental reality or the ground. Independent of perception, these manifestations may be collectively termed noumenal reality.

    Noumenal reality:

    Noumenal reality comprises manifestations, independent of perception, of fundamental reality or the ground. Noumenal reality per se is unavailable to human perception, because human perception is, among other things, a reframing of noumenal reality, specifically, human perception mediates noumenal reality within a spatiotemporal framework. A complementary expression of this would be: phenomenal reality is the reality of emergent spacetime (though perhaps not the reality of quanta, strings etc.)

    Fundamental reality or the ground:

    Fundamental reality is aperspectival, unconditioned – or as I prefer, unmanifested – consciousness; a processual pure awareness. Like noumenal reality per se, it is unavailable to human perception. Unlike noumenal reality, it may be directly experienced, for example, in certain contemplative states.

    (In fact, I believe such states are the only occasions with respect to which reality may be experienced directly, phenomenal reality comprising, as it were, indirect or implicit experiences – note the absence of a negative comparative – and this goes hand in hand with the view that our conceptual framework is metaphorical in nature. I do not say that I or we may directly experience the ground. I quite advisedly say only that it may be experienced, because I believe that in such experiences there is neither I nor we but simply the ground: awareness of awareness. The miracle is that such limited minds as ours are able to retain impressions of these nondual experiences. Atman is Brahman?)

    Inevitably, the above definitions invite the question of the one and the many. I believe that the three tiers of reality outlined above are one. They only ever exist as an arbitrary three in definitions such as mine, abstracted by the artifice of analysis. In a manner which transcends perceptual and conceptual frameworks (though perhaps neither imagination nor intuition), these three tiers represent a whole in which the opposites of manifest and unmanifest, conditioned and unconditioned, differentiated and undifferentiated, perspectival and aperspectival, indirect and direct, process and stasis, the many and the one, as well as an infinity of others, are united. So, from the ground up:

    “The Way bears one.
    The one bears two.
    The two bear three.
    The three bear the ten thousand things.
    The ten thousand things
    carry the yin on their shoulders
    and hold in their arms the yang,
    whose interplay of energy
    makes harmony.”</div><div>

    I hope you’ll indulge my closing with a few thoughts about what else may be tentatively ventured about the ground. Here, I part ways with Vedanta and a few other Eastern approaches, in that I see the ground as more fruitfully contemplated in terms of process than in terms of substance, and also, as much I agree with Vedanta that phenomenal reality is illusory, I don’t as a result conclude that it lacks truth or value and that those things are to be found only by rejecting and transcending Maya.

    It will be easier for all concerned (including myself) if I leave aside discussion of process vs. substance for now. But regarding the truth and value of phenomenal reality:

    To say, as Dennett, Hoffman and many others do, that our perceptions are in some sense illusory is not to say that they are therefore untrue: they are not literally true, that much is a given, but they may still be figuratively true, and for what it’s worth, this latter is my take on the world and ourselves as we experience all of it in perception.

    More specifically, with regards to what I have called direct and indirect experiences of reality, but which might also be termed transcendent and immanent experiences, respectively, I believe there is enormous value in both – in fact, both may be embraced as sacred – and to ponder where the greater or truer value lies is to overlook a great spiritual truth. They carry across to each other, like the two ends of one road there and back again. As Robert Frost put it:

    “I’d like to get away from earth awhile
    And then come back to it and begin over.”