I’ve read two of Daniel Dennett’s books, and while I enjoyed them at the time I find myself unable to remember what they were about, what their arguments were, or indeed any memorable passages. Maybe it’s just me, but I remember almost nothing from “Freedom Evolves”.
I’ve just watched one of Dennett’s TED talks, having been pointed there by 3quarksdaily. The title of the talk is “The Illusion of Consciousness”. Maybe I’m being thick, but I after 20 minutes I’m left with this question: what does any of this have to do with consciousness at all, let alone showing it to be an illusion? Before I move on, I should stress that I’m no kind of philosopher of mind or neuroscientist. I’m not even particularly well-read in the popular literature of these fields. Comments, please!
What I’m going to try to do today is to shake your confidence … that you know your own, inner-most mind, that you are, yourselves, authoritative about your own consciousness. …
Somehow we have to explain how, when you put together teams, armies, battalions, of hundreds of millions of little robotic unconscious cells … the result is colour, content, ideas, memories, history. And somehow all that concept [content?] of consciousness is accomplished by the busy activity of those hoards of neurons.
So we’re off to a good start. The hard problem of consciousness is to explain why certain collections of cells become conscious at all. Dennett particularly wants to question whether we really know our own conscious selves. Good. What is his method?
How many of you here, if some smart alec starts telling you how a particular magic trick is done, want to block your ears and say, “I don’t want to know. Don’t take the thrill of it away. I’d rather be mystified. Don’t tell me the answer.” A lot of people feel that way about consciousness, I’ve discovered. I’m sorry if I impose some clarity, some understanding on you. You better leave now if you don’t want to know these tricks.
Method: condescension. He’s going to smug those illusions right out of us.
The example is wrong. I don’t want you to tell me how a magic trick is done for the same reason I don’t want the stranger on the train to lean over and give me crossword answers. It’s a puzzle. The fun is thinking about it yourself. No one says “I don’t want the crossword answers. I just want the mystery of the empty squares.”
Note the implicit ad hominem. Anyone who disagrees with Dennett is weak-minded, a blissful ignoramus. Actually, those who criticised books such a Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained” usually complained that it failed to explain consciousness.
I’m not going to explain it all to you. … You know the sawing the lady in half trick? The philosopher says “I’m going to explain to you how that’s done. You see - the magician doesn’t really saw the lady in half. He merely makes you think that he does.” How does he do that? “Oh, that’s not my department”.
This is all very amusing, and delivered with a twinkle in the eye. But the message of the metaphor is this: brace yourself for some bald assertion. I’ll tell you what follows from my assumptions, but don’t expect any evidence.
Example 1. People are unable to pick up large changes in a picture they’re looking at if they are distracted by other motion. How can we not be aware of them? The high-resolution part of our eye is a very small region. The rest is filled in by the brain. You’re getting less information than you think.
Example 2. The brain will sometimes guess at detail that the eye cannot resolve, based on the information it has and previous experience. And sometimes it won’t.
Example 3. Which of the 3D figures did you rotate to see if it matched the other one?
Scientists, using their from-the-outside, third-person methods, can tell you things about your own consciousness that you would never dream of. And that, in fact, you are not the authority on your own consciousness that you think you are.
How the hell does any of that say anything about consciousness?! The most that Dennett could show from these examples is that sometimes our beliefs don’t match the outside world, that sometimes our perceptions are mistaken, that we sometimes draw incorrect conclusions from incomplete information. Really? You’ve never dreamed that your experiences might not be a perfect representation of the external world? What about your dreams?
Think about Dennett’s example of the characters in the painting on the bridge that on closer inspection turn out to be just splodges of paint. How does this realisation show that I don’t know my own mind? I think I see people. Then on closer examination I think I see splodges. In both states, I know my own mind. I know what I think I’m seeing. You can convince me (as if I needed convincing) that my subjective experiences are not the authority on the external world. But I know my own mind, because it’s my frigging mind.
Finally, consider the example of the two 3D figures. After asking which figure we rotated in our minds, Dennett asks “how do you know that’s what you did?”. The audience laughs as if some great mystery had been illuminated.
Seriously. The whole point of first person, subjective, conscious experience is that it is immediate. Immediate in the sense that it is knowledge not based on anything else, anything deeper. It is not like seeing smoke and inferring fire. The experiences of my consciousness are direct. I know that’s what I did because I experience a unified self. The me who rotated the image and the me who knows that I rotated the image are the same me. There is no message to be passed, no inference, no perception, no place to lose or garble the information.
This is why the first thing that Dennett needs to explain is how could consciousness be an illusion? Having an illusion is a conscious experience! Why, given what Dennett has said, should I doubt my own conscious experience? Why doubt my knowledge of how I rotated the figure? Whence the unified self of consciousness? How does a collection of cells come to experience?
This is Dennett’s home field. He can’t be this far off the mark, can he? What am I missing?
Either way, I’m getting fed up of talks like this.
1. Some people think X.
2. Some people think Y.
3. Science has shown us that we were wrong about Y.
4. Thus, science is about proving that some things we thought were wrong.
5. Thus, we are wrong about X.
This nonsense is behind neurobabble, quantum quackery, and certain cosmologists who think they can answer philosophical questions. It pretends to be pro-science because it is anti-common sense or anti-popular or anti-traditional beliefs. You promote science by expounding the wonders of the world, of the universe, of physics, of complexity, of understanding, of testing ideas with clever experiments. You don’t promote science by pretending it can do what it can’t.