Consciousness Explained

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Consciousness Explained
Daniel Dennett
Review first published September 28, 2004

And then a miracle occurred

Consciousness Explained is a hard, but rewarding, book. It pays to have a look at Darwin’s Dangerous Idea first; some of the ideas Daniel Dennett expounds there, particularly on the nature of algorithmic progression, are useful for getting a handle on Dennett’s central theme in Consciousness Explained. Dennett’s views in each are really quite closely related. However, the “intuitive gap” (i.e., the distance in credibility between what Dennett proposes and how things “seem” intuitively) is huge in the case of consciousness, but comparatively small for evolution.

To wit:

  • Consciousness: Intuitively, there’s a “central meaner” in the brain sitting in a “Cartesian theatre” enjoying the son-et-lumière. Dennett says this is an illusion, and there is no “narrative centre” of consciousness at all - in not so many ways, consciousness itself is an illusion; an aggregation of multiple sensory inputs and outputs of the cerebellum, all of which are performing their own functions independently of each other. “BUT AN ILLUSION TO WHOM?” you want to scream. It just doesn’t seem to make sense.
  • Evolution: Intuitively, the universe seems designed. It seems impossible that it could be the result of blind, unintelligent operations. Darwin says that this is nevertheless the case, through the algorithmic mechanism of reproduction, mutation and natural selection of multiple organisms performing their own functions independently of each other. This isn’t such a stretch, especially as the notion of a designer of the universe is an even more problematic idea, when you give it a moment’s thought.

And that’s precisely the point. Dennett argues persuasively (as, of course, many have before him) that a Cartesian theatre is just such a preposterous idea as a designer of the universe. Once you’ve ruled it out, all you are left with is the mechanical functions of the brain (unless, with Roger Penrose, you want to say “quantum mechanics did it!”), so you don’t have any choice in the matter: the only question is how to build these mechanical, independent operations up into something which can function like consciousness. Like evolution, an aggregation of algorithms can be a “crane” which can achieve more than a simple algorithm. And so on. When you account for the actual - heterophenomenological, if I may be so bold - quality of consciousness, you notice it’s incomplete, it’s bitty, it’s missing stuff: it isn’t quite the widescreen, 7.1 THX certified surround-sound audio-visual experience we think it is, which is all grist to Dennett’s mill.

Dennett is open that this is an opening salvo rather than a complete theory. But he spends too much time on stimulus and response - qualia, visual images and the like - which ought to be comparatively easy to explain in terms of multiple drafts - and not enough time is spent explaining how a human being, who only seems to have consciousness, can create clearly intentional objects, such as this book review, or more critically, a book as coherent and persuasive as Dennett’s. It is difficult to analyse this sort of intentional action without a “central meaner” to be putting the view.

As he does in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett courts controversy and seems to pick intemperate fights with his competitors, and you do wonder whether a few straw men aren’t being erected. Certainly, there is the odd cheap shot, but that adds to the entertainment value - the idea of fully grown philosophers drawing handbags at forty paces is one appeals, and Dennett’s views on his major competitor John Searle have this quality.

But John Searle should perhaps take some comfort: Dennett may at times seem abrasive, but he surely doesn’t mean to be.

If you know what I mean.