To be or not to be… conscious. Phenomenal realism and illusionism

September 29, 2022 - September 30, 2022

This event is online


  • Humboldt Foundation


Rutgers University - Newark
Tufts University
Ruhr-Universität Bochum (PhD)
University of Sheffield
New York University
University of Hertfordshire
Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences
King's College London


New York University
Ruhr-Universität Bochum

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Workshop: To be or not to be… conscious. Phenomenal realism and illusionism

Format: Hybrid

Location: University of Bochum (Germany)

Date: September 29 and 30, 2022

Organization: François Kammerer and Tobias Schlicht


Contact: kammerer DOT francois AT gmail DOT com

Registration: caroline DOT stankozi AT rub DOT de

Registration opens now. Please write to Caroline Stankozi, indicating your name and affiliation, and explaining whether you'd like to attend online or in-person. Please also indicate in your email whether you'd also like to join us for dinner on Thursday September 29 (NB: the dinner will only be covered for the speakers).


Phenomenal realists believe that phenomenal consciousness exists. Some of them even believe that its existence is quite certain! Phenomenal illusionists, on the other hand, believe that phenomenal consciousness does not exist, but merely seems to exist: they think that phenomenal consciousness is an illusion.

To be or not to be (phenomenally) conscious? This workshop will offer an opportunity for both phenomenal realists and illusionists of various kinds to engage, and discuss their theses and arguments.

The workshop will take place at the University of Bochum, with most speakers present, but it will also be entirely streamed online, to allow for participation of remote audiences in Q&A sessions (hybrid format).

Provisional program:

Thursday September 29 (Room: GA Building, level 2, room 41).

09:30: arrival and coffee

10:00- 11:15: Keith Frankish (U. of Sheffield / Open University / U. of Crete): An Illusionist Manifesto

11:15-11:45: coffee

11:45-13:00: Michelle Liu (U. of Hertfordshire): Are laypeople phenomenal realists?

13:00- 14:30: lunch

14:30-15:45: Katalin Balog (Rutgers U. – Newark): Thank God qualia are real, even if God isn’t

15:45-16:15: coffee

16:15- 17:30 : Daniel C. Dennett (Tufts U.): Qualia are virtual, and none the worse for it. So are songs and dollars


Friday September 30 (Room: Saal 3, Veranstaltungszentrum, level 04 – 04/102)

09:30: arrival and coffee

10:00- 11:15: Krzysztof Dołęga (U. Bochum): What do illusionists talk about when they say that there is 'something-it-is-like' to experience consciousness?

11:15-11:45: coffee

11:45-13:00: François Kammerer (U. Bochum): Defining consciousness and denying its existence. Sailing between Charybdis and Scylla

13:00- 14:30: lunch

14:30-15:45: Hedda Hassel Mørch (Inland Norway): Breaking the stalemate between illusionism and realism

15:45-16:15: coffee

16:15-17:30: David Papineau (King's College / C.U.N.Y.) : Reduce or Eliminate? The Varieties of Consciousness Worth Wanting


Katalin Balog (Rutgers U. – Newark) : Thank God qualia are real, even if God isn’t

I argue that there is no genuine conflict between science and qualia realism. The leading physicalist view based on the Phenomenal Concept Strategy can answer all anti-physicalist arguments, claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Similarly, the debunking argument for illusionism fails.

This means that it is not supported by the kind of strong arguments that would be necessary to maintain a highly implausible position like illusionism. This is all to the good since illusionism as a metaphysics has trouble accounting for value and meaning and so its spread has a potentially corrosive effect.

Daniel Dennett (Tufts U.) : Qualia are virtual, and none the worse for it. So are songs and dollars

The belief in qualia as “intrinsic phenomenal properties” (as typically imagined by philosophers—it’s their term of art) is as naïve and obsolete as the belief that dollars have to be cash in order to have value. Evolution has equipped us to notice and care about the properties of things that matter to us—our affordances. Our affordance-trackers are in the same category as the economic-value-trackers in our bank accounts: virtual things, composed of substrate-neutral information; we don’t need to know how they are implemented to know that they are there, and that they are what matters. 

Krzysztof Dołęga (U. Bochum): What do illusionists talk about when they say that there is ‘something-it-is-like’ to experience consciousness?

Illusionism’s central claim is that phenomenal consciousness is illusory and that experience does not come with phenomenal properties. Somewhat surprisingly, proponents of this view continue to denote consciousness by talking about ‘what-it-is-like’ to have or undergo experience. However, given their disposal of phenomenal properties, it is no longer clear what this phrase refers to, if indeed it refers to anything at all. An illusionist’s typical response — that the illusion of subjective character of experience or ‘what-it-is-likeness’ stems from the cognitive system misrepresenting itself — does not seem to provide a satisfying answer. Substituting the problem of explaining the nature of phenomenal properties for the problem of answering how misrepresenting such properties can explain the subjective nature of experience does not bring us any closer to understanding consciousness or the meaning of ‘what-it-is-like’ to experience something.

The aim of this paper is to answer the question in the title by outlining a novel version of illusionism called ‘virtualism’. I introduce this position starting from a careful analysis of the concept of ‘what-it-is-likeness’ and pointing out that it was originally introduced to denote the subjective perspective of the whole organism. Next, following Dennett’s recent work, I propose that ‘what-it-is-likeness’ is a virtual property. I present an analysis of virtual properties and conclude, contra Dennett, that such virtual properties are properties of the whole cognitive system and not of its parts. This approach not only clarifies what illusionists mean when they talk about subjective experience, but it also fends off worries about illusionism’s collapse into eliminativism. Finally, the view also presents an easy way of accounting for the ‘explanatory gap’ between subjective and objective properties.

Keith Frankish (U. of Sheffield / Open University / U. of Crete) : An Illusionist Manifesto

Abstract: Illusionism offers a new paradigm for consciousness studies. Illusionists argue that we should stop thinking of conscious experiences as ones that are accompanied by an immediately apprehended mental quality and start thinking of them as ones that have a characteristic range of psychological effects, including disposing us to judge that they are accompanied by an immediately apprehended mental quality. Much of the debate about illusionism centres on the case for making this
paradigm shift, but I shall not revisit this here. Instead, I shall look at the implications of the shift for various projects, including the scientific study of consciousness in humans and other animals,  understanding disorders of consciousness, creating artificial consciousness, and thinking about the ethics of consciousness. Illusionism does not entail specific conclusions on these matters, but it does alter the questions we ask and the evidence appropriate to answering them, and I shall survey the issues and outline a manifesto for an illusionist science and ethics of consciousness.

François Kammerer (U. Bochum): Defining consciousness and denying its existence. Sailing between Charybdis and Scylla

Ulysses the strong illusionist sails towards the Strait of Definitions. On his left, Charybdis defines “phenomenal consciousness” in a highly loaded, theoretical manner, which makes it a problematic entity from a naturalistic point of view. This renders illusionism plausible, but at the cost of strawmaning its opponents. On the right, Scylla defines “phenomenal consciousness” in a pretheoretical, innocent manner. This makes illusionism seem highly implausible. I claim that we can define phenomenal consciousness in a way that captures what phenomenal realists mean, while making illusionism plausible: Ulysses can pass the Strait of Definitions. To do so, we have to understand that “phenomenal consciousness” expresses a concept that is both explicitly innocent and implicitly loaded. Beyond the Strait, however, lies another danger for Ulysses: the Sirens of Redefinitions. They incite our hero to redefine the terms, as to verbally salvage (weak) phenomenal realism. I argue that Ulysses should resist the Sirens’ songs, and remain a strong illusionist in the face of temptation.

Michelle Liu (U. of Hertfordshire): Are laypeople phenomenal realists?

Existing X-Phi literature on the hard problem of consciousness suggests that laypeople do not have philosophers’ concept of phenomenal consciousness, and do not have a number of problem intuitions associated with the hard problem. Relevant empirical results are often taken to have significant implications with respect to philosophical theorising about consciousness in philosophy of mind. This paper takes a critical look at this experimental literature and its alleged implications. It raises two general objections – the objection from polysemy and the objection from ad hoc concepts. It undercuts the philosophical implications that existing experimental results are purported to show.

Hedda Hassel Mørch (Inland Norway) : Breaking the stalemate between illusionism and realism

The debate between illusionism and realism about (phenomenal) consciousness is stuck in a stalemate. Illusionists and realists generally agree that realism has radical implications such as epiphenomenalism, panpsychism, or violation of physical causal closure. Realists hold that consciousness is nevertheless a datum and that denying consciousness is more implausible than any (or at least one) of these implications. Illusionists, on the other hand, hold that denying consciousness is less implausible than any of these implications. Must this be regarded as an irresolvable clash of intuitions, or are there any arguments that can move the debate forward? Illusionists have argued that a solution to the illusion problem, i.e., an explanation of why consciousness robustly appears to exist even though it really doesn’t, could break the stalemate in favor of illusionism. I will argue that a solution to the illusion problem will not have this effect, because there being such a solution follows straightforwardly from physical causal closure which most non-physicalists already accept (with the exception of interactionists, but interactionists typically hold that there is evidence against physical causal closure, and this could also be regarded as evidence against any solution to the illusion problem). I will then discuss some arguments that may have a chance at breaking the stalemate in favor of realism.

David Papineau (King’s College / C.U.N.Y.): Reduce or Eliminate? The Varieties of Consciousness Worth Having

Illusionists deny consciousness, physicalists affirm it. Yet apart from that they agree entirely on what the world contains. I conclude their dispute is not substantial. They disagree only about the best way to refine an indeterminate concept – in this case the concept consciousness. In support, I shall show that indeterminacies in theoretically involved concepts are (a) completely normal and (b) responsible for many similarly insubstantial “eliminate-or-reduce?” questions both within philosophy and without. (Work done together with Christopher Devlin Brown.)

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September 28, 2022, 9:00am CET

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