, Volume 57, Issue 4, pp 559–563 | Cite as

Consciousness, Idealism, and Skepticism: Reflections on Jay Garfield’s Engaging Buddhism

  • Eric SchwitzgebelEmail author


Jay Garfield’s Engaging Buddhism admirably shows the relevance of Indian philosophy to the interests of mainstream analytic Anglophone philosophers. Garfield deploys the Indian tradition to critique phenomenal realism, the view that there really are qualia or phenomenal properties—that there really is ‘something it’s like’ to be undergoing the experience you are undergoing right now. I argue that Garfield’s critique probably turns on a false dilemma that omits the possibility of introspection as a fallible tool for getting at a real stream of experience that may or may not be accurately reported. Garfield also argues that if we are phenomenal realists, metaphysical idealism remains a philosophical possibility, whereas if we join him in rejecting phenomenal realism then we can also justifiably reject metaphysical idealism. I accept this conditional but reverse its valence: One advantage of phenomenal realism, and also of engaging with the Indian philosophical tradition, is that it opens up wonderful possibilities, like metaphysical idealism, that mainstream analytic Anglophone philosophers tend to too swiftly dismiss.


Indian philosophy Yogācāra Idealism Phenomenal realism Skepticism 

What a fun, interesting book! I’ll confess straightaway my ignorance of the Indian tradition. I am a philosopher of mind and cognitive science. I have an interest in classical Chinese philosophy, but the Indian tradition has always intimidated me. Part of Garfield’s aim, I think, in writing this book is to reach out to philosophers like me, introduce us to Indian philosophy, give us a map of some of its crucial parts, and show how it might be relevant to our interests. I think he succeeds admirably in this aim.

I will focus on Garfield’s remarks on consciousness and phenomenology in Chapters 5 and 6. I will not attempt to critique his readings of any Indian philosophers, but I do think I disagree with some of the conclusions he draws from reading them, as well as his critique of the recent Western tradition and maybe the Yogācāra tradition.

I am a ‘phenomenal realist.’ I believe that there are qualia, or phenomenal properties—that there’s ‘something it’s like’ to be undergoing the experience I am undergoing right now. I believe that I can think about my stream of conscious experience, reach judgments about it which might be right or might be wrong, and wonder what kind of metaphysics undergirds it. This appears to be a point on which Garfield and I disagree.

I am not sure I fully understand Garfield’s critique of phenomenal realism. My best guess is that his argument turns upon a false dilemma—a dilemma which, unfortunately, is invited by the remarks of other phenomenal realists in the Western tradition. The false dilemma is this: reference to qualia, or phenomenal properties, must be reference to something to which we have excellent, maybe infallible, introspective access; or else it is nothing special, just reference to straightforwardly biological and cognitive processes and our tendency to make certain sorts of judgments about them.

Garfield invokes Daniel Dennett, suggesting that Dennett might be ‘channeling Buddhist ideas unawares’ (p. 172). Dennett, according to Garfield, suggests that we can approach phenomenology, or the study of conscious experience, in one of two ways. Either we can treat the task of phenomenology as ‘the mapping of our inner life… of the structure of consciousness, we might say – taking as authoritative introspective reports of that inner world and our sense of what it must be like’ (p. 172–173). Alternatively, we can take the task of phenomenology to be ‘mapping the claims that people make about their inner life and the popular lore about what consciousness and its contents must be like – a kind of anthropology of phenomenological reflection’ (p. 173, emphasis added). Dennett (esp. in his 1991 book) does sometimes talk this way. Maybe this is his considered view, though I am not sure he’s consistent on this point. (See my critique in Schwitzgebel 2007.) Dennett’s choice seems to be framed like this: Either people are authoritative about some real stream of experience that exists independently of their tendency to make reports about it, or there is nothing to the stream of experience besides our tendency to make certain reports about it.

Consider how strange it would be to suggest a similar dilemma about some ordinary outward thing. Maybe there’s an island somewhere in the Pacific—the island of Noo-Nah. Some travelers report having visited it. They say they saw some amazing things there—maybe flowers that stood twelve feet tall. We are not sure whether to believe them. Did they really see flowers that big? It would be odd to pose the following dilemma: Either we must take their reports at face value as authoritative reports of how things really are on Noo-Nah, or we must think that there really is no way things are on Noo-Nah independent of their reports, and all we can do is an anthropology of reporting. Of course there’s an intermediate option: We can take those reports seriously as evidence, but as possibly dubious evidence which can be corrected by or corroborated by other sorts of evidence. If we know of biological objections, we can doubt their reports. If other travelers report differently, we can also doubt the reports. Alternatively, we might find good reasons to think the reports are correct—biological plausibility, independent confirmations from different travelers who came to the island with different antecedent opinions, etc.

Garfield points out, I think correctly, that taking people’s introspective reports at face value requires an ‘improbable model of introspection’ (p. 173)—but I do not think the only alternative is to shift to treating the reports themselves as the only worthwhile topic of study in the vicinity. Garfield seems to be offering the choice between taking what introspection delivers as reality, which he says is to ‘embrace delusion,’ and taking the topic of proper study to be what we believe about introspection. Fallibilist phenomenal realism of the sort I favor seems not to figure among his possibilities.

I am committed to something that might seem strange: real phenomenal experiences that you might have trouble detecting. The strangeness of this view comes out nicely in an example that Garfield takes from Evan Thompson—the chiming clock-tower attended to partway through. You know this kind of case. You are walking across campus. The clock tower starts chiming noon. At first you are not paying any attention; you are deep in thought about something else. Then, as the fourth chime strikes, you notice it, you attend to the clock tower for the first time. It seems like you can count back chimes in your experience: ‘Yes, the clock tower has already chimed three times before. Bong, bong, bong. This is the fourth.’ Here’s what I find interesting about the case. Some people, like Thompson, appear to be convinced that those first three chimes, before you started attending, were really a part of your stream of auditory experience before you attended to them. Others, like Mark Engelbert and Peter Carruthers (2011), might suggest that the chimes were no part of your experience as they occurred, but only entered your consciousness later, as vivid memories rather than as real-time experiences, after your attention shifted. I do not find it obvious who is right about this, though my hunch favors Thompson. What I am committed to is not Thompson’s view. Rather, it’s that there’s some fact or other here. Either Thompson is right, or Engelbert and Carruthers are right, or maybe some compromise view is right. There is something that is true, independently of your later report, about what your stream of auditory experience was as those first three chimes were going off, and your later report can be either right or wrong about it. But this seems to be exactly what Garfield is denying. Garfield says, of Thompson’s view, that it becomes a ‘reductio on the idea that these categories map anything we can coherently call consciousness as a state independent of our introspective activity to which we have any kind of access at all’ (p. 210).

Now it could be that there’s something incoherent in my notion of consciousness, which gives rise to the puzzlement I admit I feel about consciousness. It would be convenient if it were so, for then all sorts of issues that trouble me would dissolve. But I do not think I assume anything incoherent when I assume phenomenal realism. The concept of phenomenal consciousness is the concept of having a stream of experience—but not in a way that assumes an enduring self, or a metaphysical commitment to dualism, or infallible access (Schwitzgebel 2016). I think you know what phenomenal consciousness is. It’s a technical term, but the idea is natural enough. I think you have sensory experiences—you see words on a screen in front of you right now, you hear the buzz of voices down the hall. You have imagery experiences sometimes, probably. You might imagine the view of your house as it looks from the street. You have emotional experiences—feelings of fear or joy, for example. All these experiences have something in common, something that makes them experiences. Call it phenomenality. The way your immune system responds to an invading virus, the way your fingernails grow, the way your intestines absorb lipids—none of these, I think, has phenomenality. You do not experience them.

I think this is a coherent idea, this idea of phenomenality, or phenomenal consciousness, or conscious experience, or the stream of experience. Philosophers sometimes refer to phenomenality by means of the phrase ‘something it’s like’: There’s something it’s like to see this text, nothing it’s like to repulse a virus. Garfield rejects the phrase ‘what it’s like’; he thinks it imports too much—a subject/object duality, maybe, or the existence of some higher-order observation of one’s own subjectivity. I am not committed to the phrase. It’s imperspicuous and unfortunate, perhaps. But I see nothing incoherent in the idea to which it points.

Jay says that if we are phenomenal realists, idealism remains on the metaphysical map in a way that it perhaps does not if we reject phenomenal realism. I think Garfield is right about this. By idealism here, I mean something in the broad vicinity of Berkeley, Kant, or Yogācāra idealism (to the extent I understand Yogācāra with the help of Garfield and other secondary sources). According to idealism, the primary objects of the world, things like hands and chairs, are fundamentally mental things, something like structured patterns of actual or potential conscious experience. A natural first move in considering idealist metaphysics is this: Take phenomenal consciousness seriously as a metaphysical category. Think to yourself [this]—these sensory experiences I am now having, these conscious thoughts I am now having—is there anything behind them? Any real material world? This is Husserl’s (1913/1982) ‘bracketing’ move. Introspect. Consider your experience. Now think: What stands behind it? Of what is it constituted? If this question is incoherent, metaphysical idealism cannot get off the ground. If the question is coherent, then metaphysical idealism is an open possibility, at least until we find some further argument against it. To me, it seems an open possibility. Perhaps you will regard this as a disadvantage of my view.

Holding up one’s hands, introspecting, and saying this, this experience, whatever it is—does this act of bracketing and phenomenal realism commit me to anything metaphysically objectionable? Does it commit to an enduring self? I do not see why it does. It can happen in a moment. Does it commit to subject-object duality? I do not think so. I am not sure what subject-object duality is; those are not my words. There are experiences. My question is, what if anything stands behind them, or of what, if anything, are they metaphysically constituted? What grounds them? How do they arise? I am committed to the fact that experiences are transpiring right now, but it’s hard for me to see how that bare commitment is objectionable. Am I committed to an infallible observer of those experiences? I do not see why I would be. Maybe Husserl was. Maybe Descartes was. I do not see why that has to be part of the view, however.

Am I committed to the denial of physicalism or materialism, at least, when I bracket in this way? I do not think that is the case either. I am committed, I think, to the coherent conceivability of the absence of a physical world that grounds these experiences that are going on right now; but (contra Chalmers 1996), I do not see how to squeeze any kind of serious anti-physicalism from the fact that I can conceive of ghosts and zombies. Material stuff might be all there is, and my mind just a configuration of it.

Phenomenal realism leaves open questions that are very difficult, perhaps impossible, to solve. This too might be a disadvantage of it. Here’s one of those open questions: Assuming there is some sort of material world, what is the range of material things that have phenomenal consciousness? Consider a snail. I cannot seem to read off of its behavior or physiology whether there are, say, visual or tactile experiences going on there, as I touch my finger to its eyestalk. I am a phenomenal realist, so I think that either there are some experiences going on there, or there are not, or maybe some intermediate possibility if that makes sense—quasi-experiences, or proto-experiences, or experience wisps. (I am not sure these intermediate possibilities do make sense, but neither do I want to exclude them from the outset.) But how can I know? How abundantly does experience spread through the world? Live possibilities seem to run the gamut all the way from panpsychism on one end, according to which every single thing that exists is conscious, even elementary particles, all the way to extremely sparse views on which only adult human beings have experience, and even then only in their most reflective moments.

As I said, maybe it’s a disadvantage of my skeptical phenomenal realism that it leaves such a range of possibilities open—idealism, dualism, materialism of various sorts—and cross-cutting those possibilities, it leaves open views that treat phenomenal consciousness as extremely rare or as amazingly abundant. Maybe it’s a disadvantage that I leave all this unsettled. It would be comforting in a way, if I felt like I knew more about metaphysics—if I knew I could rule out idealism, if I knew that propensities to judge one way or another were all there were to consciousness, if I knew that certain tempting possibilities were just incoherent. No, I do not have that comfort. It seems to me like Garfield is saying to the contrary that we do have that comfort—that one thing we would learn from a close study of the Indian tradition is that phenomenal realism and with it idealism and certain types of skepticism are philosophically incoherent.

I have not learned that yet! I am willing to listen some more, though. But I’ll admit I am biased against it. I am biased against it because there’s something else I have that I am reluctant to give up—something that’s almost the opposite of philosophical confidence in dismissing idealism and skepticism. I think it’s pretty cool and I kind of like it better. It’s a sense of open possibilities. A certain kind of skeptical exhilaration. The exhilaration of having pulled the rug out from under myself and discovered there might not even be a proper floor beneath it—the thrill of feeling possibilities opening up, rather than closing.

Part of what Garfield wants philosophers like me to do in looking at non-Western traditions, I think, is to discover possibilities that had not occurred to us before. I think that’s terrific. Let us do more of that. Let us get mainstream Anglophone philosophers’ noses up out of our focus on a few decades’ worth of our familiar tradition. Let us take in a broader view. But I think that when we do this, we will find that more views are coherent and defensible than we originally thought to be so, rather than fewer.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of California at RiversideRiversideUSA

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