Consciousness as a Delusion

In Chasing the Rainbow: The Non-conscious Nature of Being, David Oakley and Peter Halligan (2017) present the theory that consciousness is a delusion.

At the time of publication, the paper in Frontiers has received 107,012 views.

According to their theory, consciousness is a specially engineered delusion; let’s call it the ‘CAD theory’. Because, to them at least, consciousness is only a delusion, O&H place the word inside scare quotes, as ‘consciousness’. Here, I leave the word as it should be left: consciousness it is and consciousness it stays.

According to the CAD theory, the ‘epiphenomenon’ of consciousness evolved to provide humans a false belief that they are actors with agency. In reality, so O&H claim, all psychologically meaningful and functional processes occur within an unconscious ‘Central Executive Structure’ (CES).

The CES is an amazing cortical device that craftily creates a fake experience of consciousness to deceive naïve humans into the false belief that they have the power to voluntarily control their individual destinies with agency and selfhood. All other psychological products are manifested in Personal Awareness a brief ‘Libet’ unit of time after their production by the CES. Consciousness does not control any behavior. It serves a passive, narrative function as an excrescence. Humans are simply automatons. In 1999, the editor of an American Psychologist special issue entitled “Behavior— It’s Involuntary” wrote: “We perceive ourselves to have far more control over our everyday behavior than we actually do. . . . [T]he source of behavioral control comes not from active awareness but from . . . mental activations of which we are unaware and environmental cues to which we are not consciously attending that have a profound effect on our behavior (Park, 1999, p. 461). The CAD theory is illustrated in Figure 1.

The CAD Theory

Figure 1. The Oakley-Halligan CAD model. The schematic diagram shows all current CES functions and other psychological activities as non-conscious processes and their products. The most task-relevant of these psychological products are selected by a Central Executive Structure (CES) to create an ongoing personal narrative via the process of Internal Broadcasting. This personal narrative is passively accompanied by personal awareness – a by-product of Internal Broadcasting. Some components of this narrative are selected by the CES for further transmission (External Broadcasting) via spoken or written language, music, and art to other individuals. The recipients in turn transmit (internally then externally) their own narrative information, which may contain, or be influenced by, the narrative information they have received. The CES also selects some contents of the current personal narrative for storage in autobiographical memory. The contents of external broadcasts contribute (via Cultural Broadcasting) to an autonomous pool of images, ideas, facts, customs, and beliefs contained in folklore, books, artworks, and electronic storage systems (identified as “Culture” in the Figure) that is accessible to others in the extended social group but is not necessarily dependent on direct interpersonal contact. The availability of culturally based resources is a major adaptive advantage to the social group and ultimately to the species as a whole. The CES has access to self- and other-generated externally broadcast content as well as to cultural information and resources, all of which have the potential to provide information that supports the adaptedness of the individual and to be reflected in the contents of their personal narrative. As a passive phenomenon, personal awareness exerts no influence over the CES, the contents of the personal narrative or on the processes of External and Cultural Broadcasting. In the Figure non-conscious process are identified in green and personal awareness (subjective experience) in blue. (From Oakley & Halligan, Front. Psychol., 14 November 2017).

The simplistic automaton of the epiphenomenonalist view, in this reviewer’s opinion, is an inadequate and flawed scientific theory, which, ultimately, offers a false doctrine. Alternative positions that warrant more serious consideration include the emergence theory that views phenomenal ‘consciousness’ as a naturally emergent feature of life and complex brains (e.g. Sperry, 1990; Feinberg & Mallatt, 2020). IMHO, in spite of its rhetorical merits, this interesting and provocative paper does not ‘unmask consciousness’ but manages to conceal and obscure its true nature in obfuscation.

Merits and Demerits of the CAD Theory

Overall, the paper provides a clear statement of a well-known epiphenomenonalist view of consciousness, namely that consciousness is a superfluous carbuncle in the scientific analysis of behavior. The paper is concise and mainly internally consistent but it presents a highly incomplete and misleading analysis of consciousness and the associated cortical structures.

If it is to be given serious attention as a scientific theory, the authors need to specify not only (A), the axiomatic assumptions and ancillary propositions of the theory, but also (B), refutable and novel predictions evaluated with robust empirical evidence. However, to date they have only succeeded in producing A, the ‘pudding’, but there is no B, ‘proof of the pudding’. Unless refutable predictions can be added, this paper and theory will remain a flight of fancy about what might be so that is lacking any defined empirical tests to assess its veracity one way or the other. The current iteration of the theory, crafted and polished over several decades, remains a scientifically weak, descriptive theory of consciousness.

Unless the claims sketched out by O&H can be substantiated with hard evidence, the theory will remain a quaint ‘straw man’ on the hinterlands of the scientific study of consciousness. To be fair, the authors do mention in passing a few speculative hypotheses about brain mechanisms but they are vague (e.g. Figure 3) and I can find no substantive hypotheses that can be tested in non-brain-damaged subjects. The Casarotto et al. (2016) study described by the authors appears to this reviewer to have questionable relevance and should perhaps be removed.

There have already been several criticisms of the CAD paper. How are these known criticisms to be rebutted? What new research will follow from the claim that consciousness is a delusion? Does the CAD claim not have a stultifying impact on new investigation if there is nothing worth discovering about the consciousness delusion?

There are some well-known limitations and shortcomings of the CAD theory that need to be addressed.

Consciousness as an Unnecessary Epiphenomenon

As the authors must be aware, there are established objections to their type of epiphenomenalist account of consciousness that they have not addressed. For example, Meese (2018) raises the first technical objection with these words: “…the simple fact is, we can talk about consciousness. This is not trivial; it means the thing we call consciousness can influence the underlying system (by causing it to speak), and in philosophy of mind, epiphenomena do not have causal feedback (e.g., Megill, 2013), so consciousness cannot be epiphenomenal (Blackmore, 2004; Bailey, 2006; Robinson, 2015)”. So how do O&H answer this objection? To date, they have given no answer.

O&H believe that consciousness is not required. Yet, they write about consciousness throughout the article as (a) process(es) that they and readers all perfectly understand as universally available phenomenal consciousness. However, different people often mean different ‘things’ when they talk about consiousness. Also following Meese (2018): “we can envisage a machine that is programmed to store only some of its internal operations in memory, and call that a personal narrative, but it does not follow that this will imbue the machine with consciousness.”

A significant point overlooked in O&H’s manuscript is the fact that, in one or more of its different states, consciousness has demonstrable adaptive value. Consciousness convincingly delivers selfhood to ‘actors’ who set global, behavioral priorities and goals, life choices, career, country and region of residence, sexual preferences, gender assignment and choice of mate, beliefs, values, opinions, and significant communication, social, artistic and cultural functions. According to O&H’s theory, these ‘choices’ are all delusory products of an unconscious CES. Yet, in delegating all of developmental, personal, social and behavioral adaptations to the CES with a stroke of the pen, gaping holes are evident, straining the theory with severe limitations.

First Missing-Link: Motivation

According to O&H’s theory, the unconscious CES is responsible for the ‘what’ and ‘when’ of behavior – thinking, choosing, planning, remembering, problem solving, acting – in their entirety. However, the all-important ‘how’ and ‘why’ and associated ‘feelings’, emotions, drives and cravings that underly behavior are in another department of unconscious processing not considered relevant in the theory. Motivation, needs, wants are nowhere to be found. If ‘free will’ really is a delusion, then surely it remains necessary to formulate how and why the CES decides which actions are momentarily beneficial to survival and need to be prioritized? The authors do not say. Perhaps O&H could consider the following sources:

Maslow (1943): “”Thus man is a perpetually wanting animal.” Thwarting, actual or imminent, of these basic needs provides a psychological threat that leads to psychopathy”;

Rogers (2008): “The directional tendency in every living organism of maintaining, enhancing, and reproducing itself is seen as fundamental to the question of motivation. This “actualizing” tendency involves development toward autonomy and away from heteronomy, or control by external forces”;

Fanselow (2018):”Fear has the ability to overwhelm consciousness so that that nothing but phylogenetically selected action occurs. By filling consciousness fear prevents flexible behaviors and that is one reason why anxiety disorders can be so debilitating. Anxiety, fear and panic are states within the emotion that correspond to different levels of threat.”

If consciousness as a delusion is overwhelmed by fear, then the feeling of fear itself must be a delusion. Yet this ‘fear delusion’ is necessary for survival. In which case, consciousness is necessary for survival. QED.

Second Missing Link: Arousal, the Waking State, and Sleep

The well-known circadian alterations in consciousness that fall under the ‘arousal’ umbrella range from the fully awake state through intermediate states of inattention and drowsiness to sleep are all missing from O&H’s theory of consciousness. Self-evidently, these dramatically different, scientifically well-established states of conscious awareness are not delusory, nor are they figments of the CES ‘broadcasting station’. They exist. They are real. They are universal across many species apart from humans.

Third Missing Link: Mental Imagery/Imagination

Another notable absentee from the CAD theory is mental imagery/imagination. In this respect, O&H differ from Jorion (1999), who equated the alleged ‘consciousness delusion’ with ‘imagination’. O&H talk instead about ‘internal broadcasting’, the scripted narrative provided by the CES, serving the function of keeping the deluded and unconsciously controlled human content with their little lot by listening to especially scripted messages broadcast by an all-powerful inner structure. Thus, the internal broadcasting is like a ‘mental radio station’. O&H appear to have missed a trick here. They could just as easily have inserted a ‘multi-channel mental TV’ into the CES which could include fantasy fiction, travel, series, horror, thrillers, erotica/’adult’ material for instant replay whenever required by waking daydreams, dreams and nightmares, and even a ‘playstation’ for hypnotic and hypnagogic mental games such as counting sheep as people are drifting off to sleep. This ‘modernisation’ of the CES would make it immensely more powerful by enabling ‘broadcasting’ of a vast range of imaginative material into what the lay person calls the ‘mind’s eye’ unavailable on steam radio. Other sensory modalities could be added to the broadcasting of the CES to bring it into line with the quasi-perceptual qualities of taste, olfaction, touch, somatic sensations and synaesthesia. The current version allows only narratives ‘propaganda’ conjured up for innocents who believe the delusion that they are fully conscious with agency, selfhood, integrity, and a moral compass.

Figure 2 mentions the right cortex having ‘visuo-spatial ability’ so a rudimentary ‘mind’s eye’ is present in the theory but needs to be elaborated if the full range of known ‘internal broadcasting’ is to be captured by the theory. A more minor point: Figure 2 suggests a division of the two cortical hemispheres (‘verbal’ vs ‘visuo-spatial ability) in line with 1960s and 1970s neuropsychology with ‘sequential’ processing on the left side and ‘simultaneous’ processing on the right side. Is this classification still viable? Also, the arrow at the top of Figure 2 labelled “suppresses” requires clarification.

Fourth Missing Link: Adaptive Benefits of Consciousness

O&H’s proposition that consciousness should be abolished from science would gain more credence if there did not exist multiple, well-established, demonstrable evolutionary benefits of consciousness. Evidence of biologically adaptive benefits of consciousness has been reviewed in several articles (e.g. see Earl, 2014, 2019; Feinberg & Mallatt, 2020).

Consider these 12 categories of evidence :

1) The complexity and enormous range of altered states of consciousness need to be explained. O&H lump all of the processes and states of consciousness together as a single entity yet this is manifestly incorrect, viz. sleep, dreams, hypnagogic/hypnopompic state, hypnotic state, hypnotic analgesia, meditation, trance, trance logic, dissociative states, etc. Why do these empirically identifiable ASCs all exist and why are they necessary? Are these states all delusional? Do none have beneficial advantages to survival? Why does sleep and/or dream deprivation have such strongly detrimental effects on wellbeing? Lacking any consideration or acknowledgement of the complexity of consciousness, the O&H theory falls at the first post.

2) It is known that ancillary systems have evolved in association with consciousness, e.g. two perceptual systems, two memory systems, explicit vs implicit memory. In each case, why would two systems be necessary? Are both systems delusory – in spite of decades of supportive empirical evidence that they have functional relevance?

3) Whenever one is actively involved with events, one experiences representations of them, which aids selection of pleasurable vs non-pleasurable stimuli. If consciousness had no effect on behaviour, then it could indicate something quite different to what was actually happening, and it wouldn’t actually matter because, according to the theory, the CES would still control all human actions, so ‘consciousness’ must be adaptive.

4) Clearly, pleasure and pain are not delusory, yet they are an essential part of conscious experience. Consciousness ranks sensed stimuli by importance, enabling decisions on how to respond (Cabanac, 1996).

5) Self-related information, very relevant to survival, is treated differently from non-self-related information. This consciously experienced ‘personal self’ appears to be anything but a delusion. The selfhood/identity of a person is associated with a unique life history, kith and kin relationships, legal identity and set of morals, values and beliefs. The sense of selfhood is palpable and real.Self-protective behaviors in the face of danger trigger near-instantaneous “freeze, flight, fight, or fright” (4 F’s) behaviors with millisecond rapidity. A dog walks towards me barking aggressively. I freeze before moving away rapidly. It is me the dog approaches not the person on the other side of the road. I take preventive action accordingly. No internal broadcast here, just an instantaneous physiological and conscious choice.

6) Consciousness can directly influence behavior. Feelings and perceptions re-direct one from one activity to another without any significant delay. One can make immediate ‘changes of mind’ with fast adjustments to new stimuli. The few 2-300ms delay suggested by Libet’s contentious work is neither here nor there in the bigger picture of adapting to life’s slings and arrows.

7) Consciousness includes qualia, which convey information at a subjective level from a particular point of view. Why would qualia have evolved without adaptive purpose? The use of qualia increases with experience in specialized tasks, e.g. sommelier training for wine tasting. “An experienced taster obtains an initial, visual impression, potentially signals unappealing smells, and decides whether the eyes were right, indeterminate, or wrong. He/she then decides whether the wine is a good exemplar of the premium quality category or not. Taste representations may only provide confirmation, in combination with the representations available from the other senses (e.g., taste balance)” (Caissie, A. F., Riquier, L., De Revel, G., & Tempere, S. (2021). Representational and sensory cues as drivers of individual differences in expert quality assessment of red wines. Food Quality and Preference, 87, 104032.) Without qualia, such fine distinctions among trained experts would be impossible. The CES alone is not sufficient to explain human sensory discrimination ability. Chefs, composers, conductors, designers, engineers, surgeons, and artists rely on qualia in their creative work, which would be poorer in their absence.

8) Consciousness perceives and organizes sensory information into a detailed, unified simulation of the world, so that a person can choose the most efficacious and desirable responses based on simulations and conscious mental maps. Geographical space serves as a mental framework for an individual’s experiences of the world. Immensely significant life choices do not happen using only the unconscious CES. They require the entirety of the conscious imagination in communication with connected others. Consider migration: “Quintessential human migration occurs when people deliberately abandon one home in favor of a distant and unseen goal. In the nineteenth century many Europeans left their homes for remote parts of the world of which they had no direct experience. They did not go blindly: the move was a calculated risk. They had images of their new homes based on hearsay, letters from relatives, and immigration literature. Indeed these attractive images were a cause of their desire to move.” (Tuan, 1975).

9) Memories and thoughts are triggered by consciously experienced feelings, a process that is utilized beneficially in multiple kinds of psychotherapy and in nostalgic episodes when recalling earlier experiences, childhood memories and occasions. The conscious ‘reliving’ of life experiences with nostalgia provides joy for the self and affirms social identity (Sedikedes et al., 2015). The CES cannot achieve the positive outcomes achieved by memory work without the beneficial outcomes of conscious recall.

10) O&H insist that scientific psychology rests exclusively on a third-person perspective. However a complete science of psychology requires the first-person perspective also. One cannot be reduced to the other. Neither has priority in a proper science of ‘consciousness’. In accordance with Velmans (1991b): “information processing models which view humans only from a third-person perspective are incomplete…first-person and third-person accounts are complementary, and mutually irreducible. A complete psychology requires both.”

11) Again, following Velmans (1991b), from a third-person perspective, consciousness does not enhance adaptive functioning. Rather, the brain functions, in part, to produce experience. From a first-person perspective, the difference this makes is obvious. Without consciousness there would be no experienced world.”

12) In the domain of health-related behavior, people often act in non-optimal ways. Individuals would like to quit smoking, eat healthily, get enough sleep, and exercise, but they do not engage in these behaviors as often as they wish. Individuals also engage in risky behaviors such as drinking too much, unprotected sex, and the like, that can compromise health, either acutely or over the long-term. Issues of this type often result from failures to transcend the moment in the service of long-term goals. Impulsive tendencies (controlled by the CES in O&H’s theory) tend to favor behaviors, such as eating fatty food, that provide immediate pleasures, but can be problematic if repeated. Something like an ‘ego centre’ for control based in consciousness is needed to represent long-term goals of restraint to align current behaviors with courses of action that tend to be health-promoting (de Ridder & de Wit, 2006). See also point 3 above.


The CAD theory fails on a number of counts. Major revision is necessary to rebut the criticisms and to fill the void left by the numerous gaps identified above. Perhaps O&H will claim points 1-12 above are all, like consciousness itself, delusional. Owing to the flaws inherent in the approach, it seems doubtful that a rebuttal can be successfully achieved.

Published by dfmarks


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