Dennett has conducted a wonderful investigation into the nature of consciousness. Not being satisfied to treat consciousness as something ontologicallDennett has conducted a wonderful investigation into the nature of consciousness. Not being satisfied to treat consciousness as something ontologically and fundamentally "special", he dismisses some misguided notions of the workings of consciousness which makes it seem as though there has to be some sort of "center or awareness" in which it all comes together along with the related notion of conscious experience as something which has further unexplainable phenomena, qualia, as its building blocks. Dennett insist on treating consciousness as just another biological phenomenon, needing an explanation in terms of more fundamental, unconscious, building blocks thereby dismissing the idea of qualia as ungrounded (unless understood as something further analyzable in terms of phenomena that do not exhibit qualia. These two intellectually unmotivated notions are related in that they both suppose that in order to explain consciousness, we need to find something fundamental which is itself like that which it is there to explain. Need to understand conscious experiences? Postulate the existence of basic states of conscious awareness which can not be "explained away": qualia. Need to understand the nature of a conscious person experiencing the world? Postulate the "Cartesian theater" at "the center of the mind" in which all the processing of the brain comes together to yield the final experience. Both these approaches to these questions are highly misguided: to explain the nature of conscious states, we need an explanation of their constituent parts in the brain, how the processes of the brain amount to experiential states, we do not need there to be, in addition to the purely physical processes of the brain, an accompanying unanalyzable state of conscious experience of the processing; to explain the nature of the conscious agent having these experiences, we do not need to find a further, smaller agent inside the mind, taking in all the results of the processes and experiencing their end result. Being predisposed to naturalistic explanation, as any thinking person should be, Dennett rightly concludes that these other explanations, being grounded in myths and mystery, will not do to explain what consciousness is and are often at odds with experimental results (which is, of course, enough to dispel them). Dennett does not have a detailed account of exactly how the processes of the brain amount to conscious experience (and it would be too early to attempt such an explanation), but goes a long way towards showing how scientific discoveries show us the way to asking the right questions. This is, it seems to me, both his usual approach and the right one. Upon suggesting that the mind and consciousness works a certain way, he accompanies the claim with scientific sources conducting experiments on the issue and sometimes suggest future experiments of his own that would test his thesis.
In the end, Dennett is unclear about exactly it means for someone to be conscious of something other than that it consists in the person being in a state where his or her brain currently processes information regarding the thing of which he or she is currently conscious. This might seem unsatisfactory, and this is perhaps necessarily so considering the current state of our scientific understanding of the mind. In any case, he does not dismiss consciousness, is not a complete eliminativist regarding it (as some seem to think he is), but rather seeks to demystify it, explain how it is that we are conscious beings and trying to convince the readers that we can keep our conscious minds without clinging on to unwarranted convictions of the special nature of the conscious mind. It's all very clear headed and Dennett seems to say almost exactly as much as should be said about the subject: there is no center of the mind in which experience and intentions arise (no Cartesian theater, no central meaner), there are no basic building blocks of conscious experience such that they can not be further explained in naturalistic terms (no qualia), there is no serious possibility of there coming into being creatures with all the behavioral complexity of conscious human beings who are nonetheless not conscious (no zombies) and the mind and all its workings, consciousness included, needs to be analyzed as a naturalistic phenomenon with no prejudices concerning the "special nature" of subjective experience (phenomenology) that is not explained in terms of objective phenomena (the scientific method)....more
After finishing Consciousness Explained recently and liking it very much, feeling convinced Dennett tackles the issues in the appropriate way, I feltAfter finishing Consciousness Explained recently and liking it very much, feeling convinced Dennett tackles the issues in the appropriate way, I felt a need to read this one next. Here, Dennett elaborates on his ideas that in order to understand consciousness, we need to take empirical findings seriously and if we do, we realize that there is no room for any center of consciousness in the brain. Rather, we find that activities are spread out over different areas having different functional roles, somehow adding up to conscious experiences. He sketches a theory of how and why certain activities result in conscious awareness, reshaping his earlier attempts through the multiple drafts model and fame models of consciousness, into the fantasy echo theory, according to which our consciousness is explained in terms of our ability to recall experiences which results in episodic memories being possible. As I understand Dennett here, he calls attention to an important difference between lower forms of attention, such as that exhibited by lower forms of life who we agree do not enjoy consciousness, at least not of our kind, and higher forms of attention that requires the ability to form experiences of episodes. It is just this ability to experience not just simple inclinations towards reacting in certain ways in response to perceptions, but complete episodes that can be memorized and recalled that explains our conscious experiences. An important aspect of the theory is that any conscious experience consists simply in a multitude of lower, unconscious states in the mind which come together to form the experience and that there is no one moment in which something enters into consciousness but that there is competition at any moment between different sets of lower brain states to rise in activity.
The different models come together more or less, and can be seen as elaborations on each other. In the multiple drafts model, Dennett made the analogy to academic articles. There are often no one canonical version of the article, it can be in circulation as one or several different drafts, be published in a conference proceedings and then in a slightly different version in a journal and so on. There simply is no answer to the question of when the article is officially published and Dennett suggested, by his multiple drafts model, that there similarly is no answer to the question of when a something first enters into consciousness. It is a gradual process of many lower brain states being activated together yielding conscious experiences that arise as "drafts" that get revised multiple times. The fame model describes the situation in other terms: different conscious experiences have a potential at any moment to arise from the activity of the brain, with these potential experiences competing for the "fame" of attention. In the fantasy echo model, Dennett seems to focus on another aspect of this. With the previous models, he attempted to explain how there is no one moment when something reaches a point of awareness, that there's an ongoing process by which conscious experiences shifts and changes gradually. Now, he lays down a theory of how conscious experiences are explained by focusing on our ability to recall events, to shape memories and experiences into episodes, which supposedly is meant to explain how we get rich experiences and not merely the primitive responses of unconscious life forms (let's take bacteria, for an uncontroversial example of a responsive yet unconscious life form).
The other side of this view of conscious experiences is that they are analyzable, at least potentially, in terms of lower, unconscious brain states and this is where Dennett spends a lot of time, I think rightly, to attack the idea of qualia and to show what goes wrong if some intuitions are left unexamined when considering some classic thought experiments meant to prove the existence of qualia. Philosophical zombies and Mary the color scientist are treated at length and the analysis seems to hold, but I'm not going to try to summarize them here now.
In conclusion, Dennett is to the point, unimpressed by intuitions, and carefully considerate of scientific results. His models are attempts to account for something beyond that which science can currently investigate fully, but he provides suggestions informed by scientific results for where to look for a theory of consciousness rather than, as Chalmers and others seem to be doing, suggest that consciousness is some sort of fundamental building block in our ontology such that no scientific, third-person, investigation can ever explain it. It's a lovely book further explaining Dennett's views of consciousness, perfect reading for anyone who has already read Consciousness Explained. The only reason I'm giving it only four stars (and I would have given it four and a half if that had been possible) is that there are times when Dennett writes tiny dialogues in which he pits his views against those of his opponents. Such passages can be enlightening and interesting (as we know from Plato...) but Dennett does not do a very good job with them. Even though I agree with most of his conclusions and think he does a good job of defending himself against his opponents, I think he does so best when he quotes them and picks apart their arguments one by one. In the dialogues though, he mostly succeeds in creating straw men that are way too easily defeated. I think the qualia people are misguided and confused but, as is shown when Dennett does quote them, their arguments take some time to pick apart and he does not do any of his opponents justice by making them go down so quickly as he does in the dialogues. Thankfully, these passages are few and short so they do not harm the reading experience too much, but it's enough that the rating needs to fall short of the full five stars. Another, tiny, flaw is that there are several passages that are repeated twice (and some, if I remember correctly, thrice). Dennett comments on this in one chapter, attributing it to the text of that chapter being a revised version of a lecture he gave which included material from the papers being the bases of the other chapters. This is understandable, but I'm pretty sure there was another repetition or two in the latter chapters. Perhaps this comment by Dennett was meant to apply to several of the last chapters. In any case, it doesn't matter much but the repetition was a minor annoyance which, in combination with my comment above on the badly written dialogues, necessitated the four out of five stars. I do, nevertheless, consider it a must read for anyone interested in theories of consciousness....more