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
Having been a huge fan of Dennett for a couple of years, through his talks, interviews, debates, articles and papers (all of those mostly on the topicHaving been a huge fan of Dennett for a couple of years, through his talks, interviews, debates, articles and papers (all of those mostly on the topic of religion but some on philosophy), I'm actually a loss to explain why this is the first time I've read one of his books, especially since I've been aware for a while now, since reading "Quining Qualia" and "True Believers: The Intentional Strategy and Why It Works", that he's such a brilliant and entertaining (while always on topic, rational and extremely analytical) writer. Both Breaking The Spell (the only one of the canonical four "new atheist" books by the four horsemen that I have yet to read) and Consciousness Explained have stood in the bookshelf for a while now, and I recently purchased two more works from the Dennettian literary outpourings for use in writing my bachelor's thesis in philosophy, which brings us to the current work (the other one was Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, a book I chose not to read at the moment after realizing it was not central to my thesis).
I had, as mentioned previously, already read Dennett's paper "True Believers: The Intentional Strategy and Why It Works" and used this for a previous essay in which I turned Dennett's seemingly instrumentalistic, yet inescapably (at least in the broadest sense of the word) Realistic (philosophical Realism that is, a qualification I tried to convey by capitalizing the word, but nevertheless felt the need to clarify) understanding of Intentionality against John Searle's more simplistically (or at least, directly) Realistic version to see what this made of Searle's argument, in his "Minds, brains, and programs", against the possibility of what he dubs "strong AI". This paper, "True Believers", is included among several other of Dennett's papers in the present volume. Also present are shorter chapters with reflections after each chapter containing a previously published paper, as well as two concluding chapters with (for this book, though not for us at the present moment as this book is now quite old) new material. All in all, this gives the reader a comprehensive understanding of Intentionality a la Dennett, how we, according to Dennett, use the hypothesis of other beings having Intentional states by way of the Intentional strategy, what the successful use of this strategy tells us, and how we are to understand some of the nitty-gritty details of the whole subject including the ontological status of Intentional states and the connections with evolutionary processes.
As one works ones way through the book, one finds a clear progression of thoughts leading to greater and greater maturity in insight into particular potential problems and details that needs clarification. In "True Believers" Dennett somewhat superficially proclaims that the strategy does work and works precisely for those artifacts (Intentional systems, humans being the prime example) where Intentionality is a pattern otherwise missed as opposed to those artifacts where the strategy could be utilized without thereby revealing a pattern otherwise missed, without really clarifying the difference between the two; but further on in the book, in discussing the Intentional strategy as a proposal for ethologists observing the social behavior of vervet monkeys (in chapter 7: 'Intentional Systems in Cognitive Ethology: The "Panglossian Paradigm" Defended'), he lays out some suggestions for actually evaluating the success of the strategy in ways that are supposed to show what "level" of Intentionality the artifact under investigation actually has which could be used as a way of distinguishing between "true" cases of Intentionality as opposed to "false" ones. The distinction seems a bit fluid or even ill-founded at times, seeing as how Dennett denies the existence (in chapter 8: "Evolution, Error, and Intentionality") of the kind of Intentionality championed by other philosophers: what he calls intrinsic intentionality, which seems to cause problems: is intentionality a real, "intrinsic", phenomenon or is it not? Dennett's view seems to be that while it is a perfectly objective fact that the Intentional strategy works for describing and predicting the behavior of certain artifacts (Intentional systems), Intentionality is not found "intrinsically" inside these artifacts but rather in the patterns exhibited by their behavior, and yet, he's no simple behaviorist! His position is at times rather hard to pin down, but I still suspect his treatment of the phenomenon of Intentionality is the most sensible one (at least among the ones I've so far encountered): Intentionality seems to be something perfectly "real", which seems to follow simply from the "no miracles" argument applicable to any instrumentalistically successful strategy, but since there seems to be little reason to think that "beliefs" or any other "meanings" are intrinsic properties of minds (here Dennett seems to argue for a more general thesis that what is "really there" at the bottom is merely syntactic whereas any semantic properties belong in the exhibited behavior of the phenomenon in question, perhaps I'm reading too much into Dennett here but he certainly seems to be arguing along these lines when, in chapter 9: "Fast Thinking", he argues against Searle's previously mentioned views on strong AI) we need to view the Reality of Intentionality as a pattern exhibited by Intentional systems.
Dennett's arguments are subtle and fascinating, and always supported by lots of references to empirical research. One of the most refreshing things about Dennett is that he shows a deep understanding of the need for relating philosophical speculation and analysis to scientific findings, which is more than can be said, at least most of the time, for John Searle, a critique I will definitely touch upon again when reviewing Searle's Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind (which I'm currently reading) as soon as I'm finished with it....more
I really don't feel like writing a long, serious review right now (and I probably won't later either) so I will just write something short about my geI really don't feel like writing a long, serious review right now (and I probably won't later either) so I will just write something short about my general impressions and compare Searle's treatment of intentionality with that found in Dennett's "The Intentional Stance" which I recently finished reading.
In short, Dennett displays a rigid analytical ability with which Searle is too impatient to bother. Whereas Dennett treats seriously the question of the reality of intentional states, Searle see the question as having an obvious answer: they are real biological phenomena! Both Dennett and Searle treat intentionality seriously, they are not eliminativists (even though Dennett is sometimes mischaracterized as such), but Dennett is wise enough not to jump from the observation of the efficacy of the intentional stance to the conclusion that intentional states are real biological phenomena in the brain: they could be more like something along the lines of behavioral tendencies, or something else describable at a higher level, a possibility Searle dismisses out of hand because, a favorite style of "argument" of his, it is supposedly obviously false. Searle definitely has some interesting points in analyzing the logical structure of the phenomenon of intentionality, but seems to think that he has arrived at the obvious, biological structure of this phenomenon in the brain, moving along way too quickly without considering other possible logical analyses (the fact that his logical structure makes sense is of course no proof that it is an correct description of a real biological phenomenon) or accounting for empirical questions that raise problems for his account. This puts him in stark contrast with Dennett, and it makes his account of intentionality much more speculative, however logical and convincing it may seem....more