Consciousness Explained (1991)


In a way I wish the book had been named Dennett’s Theory of Consciousness, Explained–although, I’m not sure I would have read a book of that title (who wants to read yet another person’s theory?). Indeed the book’s audacious title does its job well in terms of marketing: I purchased and began reading the book with great gusto. But, obviously, since the book was published in 1992 and we here in 2016 still cannot agree that consciousness has been explained, we know that Dennett doesn’t deliver on what we perceive as his initial promise to give us “…an empirical, scientifically respectable theory—of human consciousness” (4). Sure, while there is an abundance of scientific experimentation used in the argument of this book, we ultimately get what Dennett calls “a family of metaphors” (455). So, despite the anticlimactic ending, Dennett does give us an explanation, and I cannot say the journey wasn’t worth it.

Dennett’s main preoccupation is to change our way of thinking, a mode given in the early seventeenth century by Descartes. More specifically, Dennett wants to eradicate the concept of the Cartesian Theater and the homunculus who lives in the brain (or, in Descartes’s conception, the pineal gland), watching a movie of our conscious experience on the Theater screen. Certainly the redundancy of destroying this mode of conceiving consciousness becomes monotonous pretty early on, but one must keep in mind that Dennett is above all a teacher, and one of the symptoms of pedagogy is repetition. But to his point, he is concerned with changing our thinking because the Cartesian dualist mode still needs magic to bridge the gap between the immaterial mind and the material brain. Again, Dennett’s view is that there is no magic, nothing immaterial going on. He is a materialist interested in reconciling “mind stuff” with the laws of the physical world.

If you want to safeguard yourself from frustration with the book, pay close attention to the two major places where Dennett hedges his thesis: (a) his definition of a mystery is “…a phenomenon that people don’t know how to think about—yet” (21); and (b) his proposition is that “No one can think about consciousness without [metaphors]” (455). As you can see, the first proposition comes very early in the book and the second one comes at the very end, and both are complementary. What we are getting here is a new way of thinking about consciousness metaphorically; and the way in which it is made “scientifically respectable” is that it is based on using empirical research to invalidate previous notions that chalked gaps up to immaterialism. If you ask me, based on these two propositions, perhaps a greater human mystery is metaphor itself and the fact that we apparently must use it to understand consciousness. Is everything we think and say actually metaphor (i.e. are we trapped in a metaphor)?

What made the book worth the journey, for me, was Dennett’s lucid, casual, engaging prose; his ability to weaken popular thought experiments (e.g. brain in a vat, Searle’s Chinese Room, and Nagel’s bat), which he refers to as mere (flawed) intuition pumps; and his comedic moments. (The best comedic moment pokes fun at his own profession: “When [a sea squirt] finds its spot and takes root, it doesn’t need its brain anymore, so it eats it! (It’s rather like getting tenure.)” (177)). The way the thesis develops is engaging to the point that I was able to enjoy at least an hour of reading the book every day for 13 consecutive days. And, again being a teacher, Dennett takes care to recapitulate his theory throughout the book, breaking every chain down link by link.

As one may expect at this point (in historical time, not in reading this review), Dennett’s family of metaphors he wants us to adopt all come from computer science. Our brain is the hardware and our mind is the software. The immaterial magic from Cartesian dualism and the qualia (which Dennett firmly rejects) is nothing more than the constant execution, reflection, and rewriting of this software. Self-correcting and -compiling programs are certainly a major separator between narrow/weak and strong AI. In a sense, because we humans have the ability to engage in constant reflection, we can thus constantly recompile (read evolve) our minds. What we call consciousness is really just the result of the processing of raw data (sensory input); and this processing is not a linear, sequential model. The way we process input is based on his conception of Multiple Drafts.

And so it is that the Multiple Drafts model is bestowed upon mankind. Let’s explain this model (i.e. fire) with Dennett’s (Prometheus’s) own words:

There is no line that can be draw across the causal “chain” from eyeball through consciousness to subsequent behavior such that all reactions to x happen after it and consciousness of x does not happen before it. This is because it is not a simple causal chain, but a causal network, with multiple paths on which Multiple Drafts are being edited simultaneously and semi-independently (392-393).

When we marvel, in the moment of heightened self-consciousness, at the glorious richness of a conscious experience, the richness we marvel at is actually the richness of the world outside in all its ravishing detail. It does not “enter” our conscious minds, but is simply available (408).

In my interpretation, we all are the subjective authors of our own conscious experience of the objective world. Plato was right, to some degree: the world offers up the ideals and we process the forms that we notice.

The book ends with the thoughts we find in the movie Big Hero 6 and the “White Christmas” episode of Black Mirror: if consciousness is simply raw data, a computer program, we can theoretically transport it from medium to medium, thus constituting immortality. Indeed, these thoughts get much more updated treatment in recent books such as The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind, but we must remember that Consciousness Explained is nearly a quarter-century old. For some, thoughts of our selves as mere data capable of being copied and pasted like the files that make up a computer program are terrifying, but Dennett finds this explanation much better than the troublesome thought of an immortal (and immaterial) soul, so, as good scientists we must embrace such theories. Either way, I (the reader) am thinking about these things, and that, per Dennett, justifies the book’s existence.

I am left wondering about the interactions and effects of humanity and computer science. Is computer science starting to mimic us, or are we beginning to think in terms of computer science? (Is there a difference?) Are we creating a new mankind in our own image? One wonders if we would be conceptualizing consciousness in a completely different way were there some other completely different bubble in intellectual development, something other than computer science. For Dennett, human consciousness is no longer a mystery because he has given us a way to think about it. For me, I’m not so certain.

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